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Blog: Blog

In the years during my early start-ups, I was in search mode. I was searching for the brightest people that I could bring in, the best technology that could help me scale and the most ideal marketing avenues. It was all about leveraging limited capital as I bootstrapped and fishtailed my way through founding a company. Sometimes I got it right, but many times I got it wrong — and though it was often costly, it was when I got it wrong that I learned the most valuable lessons.

Over the past five months I’ve taken pause to uncover the experiences of other Founders. I began by asking the following questions:

· “Have things changed?”

· “What are a Founders most common pain points?”

· “Where do Founders go for input?”

The latter may seem intuitive as many Founders have a board or an investor or two. But the real magic happens in the conversations with trusted confidants who have been there done that, who have struggled, but aren’t afraid to reveal how they went about crafting solutions.

What I’ve learned from combining my own entrepreneurial experience, the past months of observation and countless offline, confidential discussions with Founders, is that there is a visible pattern among startups that are on the rise. There are a few common denominators that help to provide foundational clarity and a framework that positions organizations for growth and success. Call them entrepreneurial rules, tenets or business truths, when you’re trying to survive in an increasingly competitive market, it is incumbent on leaders to establish — and model for others — a strong foundation of:

1. Transparency, where individual-level customer service and performance metrics are visible and updated daily. (It’s clear who is leading and who needs to catch up.)

2. Regular — and frequent — acknowledgment of wins, where people are recognized and celebrated.

3. Accountability, where nothing slips, concerns are addressed and coaching is provided.

4. Unsurpassed service, where the deliverable exceeds expectations — and when there is a slip up, it is made it right.

5. Acknowledgment that struggle and setbacks are part of the process, where mistakes and failures are chances to learn, grow and begin again.

6. Recognition that people are the most valuable asset to the organization.

7. Culture, where founders take individual level responsibility and teams are empowered to lead from the edges in.

It’s the last two truths that I want to focus on here. When leaders acknowledge and celebrate their people, you can see it and you can feel it. As I toured startup spaces and dropped in on field teams, the positive attitudes and undercurrent of people truly enjoying what they do was palpable. In these environments, I could tell that while people took their work seriously, they also liked to have fun and knew that they were celebrated for their energy, passion and dedication. You can’t manufacture smiles like that.

Culture should begin with leadership. When this occurs, individual growth is celebrated — and individual success is team success. Founders who are true leaders don’t go at it alone. They walk the walk with their teams, knowing that everyone’s well-being is intertwined.

Throughout the past several months, I’ve been given the incredible opportunity to act as an advisor and confidant to various entrepreneurs and startup organizations. I’ve been with founders as they wrestle with the timing of a capital raise, debate their approach to scaling and consider how to build their executive teams. I have been inspired and energized by the experience, recalling and putting to work my own years of numerous ups and downs. At the end of the day, we have to remember that it’s about empowering others. It’s seeing the value in hardship and making good use of what we learn for the betterment of others. The organizations that work to incorporate the common denominators I mentioned above, don’t lose sight of “where it all began” and remember (always!) to pay it forward, will be the individuals, and the companies, that we won’t be able to stop talking about in years to come.

While helping my two young children get dressed for a family wedding it occurred to me how much a look could transform an attitude. As I laid out the elegant dress that my daughter would wear and the little suit for my son, they both excitedly threw off their PJs to step into their new attire. I watched them dance around and admire each other in the mirror, somewhat in awe of their thrill at being fancier versions of themselves. What struck me also was their comfort level with how they looked. They instinctively knew what looked and felt good to wear, and it showed in the smiles on their faces, and in the way they held their shoulders back and proudly walked around the room like little, confident adults. It was as if they had a musical soundtrack playing, one that only they could hear, that boosted their self-assurance to not just play the part, but to be the part. It was as if their look had a sound, and that sound was a little bit of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” with some “Walking on Sunshine” thrown in for good measure.

I do realize we don’t live our lives with background music — although that would be awesome — but I do believe that our look speaks for us before we speak for ourselves. Your look has a sound. What do you want it to say? What is it that you want people to see in you before they even hear from you?

This is more than just feeling confident when you dress for the day. This is about unlocking your inner badass. If you could play background music during your interview or your pitch, what would your song be? Can you channel the confidence and the energy that song gives you? When you feel confident, you can be yourself. When you can be yourself, you can speak up when you know the answer, and just as important, speak up when you don’t.

We all know that when we look good, we feel good — or at the very least, we do a better job of acting like we feel good. Just like you’d be prepared internally to know your stuff for a meeting or a presentation, you need to coordinate the external presentation as well.

You may be making a deal or people may be investing in your deal — but the truth is that they’re really investing in you. People invest in people. Whether you’re young, just starting your career and want to gain credibility, or you want to maintain and build upon the credibility you’ve worked for years to earn, you need to spend the time to find what makes you feel good. This can open doors.

True story. A few years ago, I was attending a technology conference in San Francisco. I was walking along the sidewalk and found myself elbow to elbow with a man whose style caught my attention. He had thought of every detail, right down to the socks. I took notice of the precision and care that he obviously invested in himself. Fast-forward to later that day at the conference, I was attending a session about the technology stack that that supports Trunk Club. Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce, was interviewing Brian Spaly, the founder and then CEO of Trunk Club. The impeccably dressed man I was just walking next to on the streets of San Francisco was Brian Spaly! His look had a confident sound and for what it’s worth, Nordstrom acquired Trunk Club in 2014 for nearly $350 million.

You don’t have to be into fashion to be successful, but you can’t overlook the fact that the two, in some ways, are comingled: your style impacts your mood, your mood impacts your presence and your presence impacts the way you deliver a message. So what message do you want to deliver before your actual message is heard? What sound do you want your look to have?

Last week I was shopping for one, final last-minute gift for my son. I had already chosen what I believed to be a thoughtful and perfect gift, but I still felt as though it wasn’t enough — and so I rushed back into the toy store, searching for one last gift that would make me feel like I had fulfilled my goal as the ultimate gift giver. I was in search of the “perfect” gift to give him, but I didn’t stop to consider that perhaps the gift I had already carefully chosen was the perfect gift. In my last-minute rush to prepare for the holiday, I was overthinking it.

I believe that most of do this, in work and in life. We overthink our gifts. I’m not talking about the physical, packaged gifts that we carefully wrap with shiny paper and ribbon. I mean the gifts that are unique to only you, the gifts that make you who you are. So often, we’re too busy looking for the perfect job, building a network or searching for what we believe might be our passion, that we overthink, and overlook, the gifts we have to offer the world.

This sometimes makes us stumble a bit because we tend to think that gifts must be some kind of rare and extraordinary talent — the ability to speak multiple languages fluently, possessing an extraordinary falsetto or an incredible ability to do mental math. But your gifts are not just your talents. A talent has to be practiced and honed. You don’t have to dig to deeply to determine your gifts, because a gift comes naturally to you. This is why we overthink them.

Maybe your gift is bringing people together to build effective teams. Maybe you have a knack for making complex topics easy to understand. Perhaps you effortlessly bring a glass-is-half-full, can-do attitude to everything you do. The key is to put your gifts to work for you. We can do this by recognizing our gifts and then asking ourselves, “How can I contribute them?” When you look at your work from a perspective of giving back and contributing your gifts, it shifts the ground beneath you a bit. It will not only help you identify what differentiates you from everyone else, it will help you establish yourself as someone who brings unique knowledge or talent to the table. Focusing on serving, giving — and ultimately sharing your gifts — is what propels you forward, in work and in life.

As 2018 comes to a close, I hope you’ll set a goal with me for the New Year to stop overthinking it. This is the year to recognize your gifts and contribute them to the world.

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