I wrote a book and it's not perfect, but it is DONE: why we struggle to reach our goals

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Goals

Why we struggle to reach them

As we approach that time of the year for "resolutions" many of us will set goals for 2018. I'm sure at some point in your life you've set a goal before: you want to lose weight, you want to get a promotion, you want to buy a house, or, if you're like me, you want to write a book.  There are different degrees of "wants" in our lives, of course. But the loftier the goal/want, the harder it becomes for us to achieve it. Why? Psychologically, at the start of a journey, we're full of enthusiasm and excitement about our goal. But as we start to work at it, we find just how much work it will take. The honeymoon phase ends quickly, and now all we see is the mountain of tasks in front of us. We get demotivated, and start to make excuses for why we're not reaching our goals. In the next few sections I'll walk you through the struggles I faced when writing a book, and share some tips on how I pushed through to reach my goal.

Struggle #1: Not Feeling Ready

In January of this year, I was at the base of a mountain. I told myself (to make myself feel better), that in 2017, I wanted to spend time learning how to write so I could "one day" write a book. This is the first hurdle you have to overcome: the need to feel qualified to do something. What I didn't realize at the time was that my near-term task of "studying" was really just my fear taking over. I could have studied until the cows came home, but odds are are, I never would have felt ready to write. This is the first trap many of us fall into - feeling unqualified or not-ready.

So how do you overcome this first obstacle? You forget about feeling ready, shut off your over-analyzing brain, and you just start. You'll learn as you go - if you're passionate about reaching your goal, you'll find ways to get there. You're probably not the first person to attempt this thing, and you know that you are intelligent and capable of finding the resources you need. If you struggle with this, maybe all it takes is the encouragement of a friend or family member, or a trusted advisor. That's what worked for me - a push at the right time, by the right people.

I found that as soon as I threw away the safety net of "not being ready", got a push, and shifted my focus to execution, things started moving fast. In June I finally said, forget being ready, I'd just going to start!

Struggle #2: There's just so much I have to do!

But then once you start, you hit struggle #2, task-overload. Writing a book is a long process. Like many lofty goals, I saw a large number of steps and unknowns in front of me, and at first it was overwhelming. "I'll never finish this", I thought. But 3 weeks later the first draft of my book was written. And 2 weeks after that I had my first edited copy. It wasn't so bad, looking back - how silly of me to worry!

But how did I do it? I had zero experience writing books. I got a C+ in english composition. And I hated writing. But as-in step #1, I ignored those things and started, because I had a network, the internet, and I knew how to find people that could help me. Part of that process (and avoiding getting stuck) was consulting with people who had written books before. Forget wasting hours researching on my own - I swallowed my pride and went straight to a reliable source, and had them give me the roadmap for the steps I should take. It was important to me that I write my own book, but not that I figure out how to write it by myself. I had to remind myself that doing this by myself was not my goal. Getting it done was my goal. And my hunger to get it done had to overcome my hunger of doing it myself.

Then, laser focus. I chose to focus on one thing at a time and forget about what came next. Never mind the fact that I still, to this day, with my book being printed a few weeks from now, do not know how to sell my book on Amazon. I'll figure it out when I need to figure it out. The key is this: focus only on what you need to know at the exact place you are on the road to reach your goal. Find out how to push through step 1, then move to step 2. We get overwhelmed and paralyzed at the size of our goals when we think about everything we have to do. But if you take it one step at a time, it's manageable, and soon enough, you'll start to see progress. Then you'll be unstoppable. Think about when you learned to drive a car: when you first got in the driver seat, were you worrying about to merge onto the freeway? How to pay a toll at the turnpike? No, you focused on adjusting your mirrors, then putting the car in drive, then taking your foot off the break -  all one step at a time.

Struggle #3: "But it isn't perfect!"

The final challenge is this: when we get close to accomplishing our goal, we often get paralyzed again. We want it to be "perfect". I nearly fell into this trap when I was preparing my transcript to send to the editor - I thought about going back an re-writing sections...perhaps I'd take some things out.  I wanted it to be perfect...for a moment...but then I remembered: what was my goal with writing the book? I was reminded that the book being perfect was not important - I know I'm not going to be a best selling author or win any awards - I just need to ship it. Having my thoughts out in the world is my goal, so delaying the process by going back and re-writing would actually stop me from reaching it. I pushed through the fear of the imperfection, closed my eyes, and sent the transcript off. As humans, we often struggle to call things "done". We obsess about details. Seth Godin has done excellent work to explain this phenomenon with what he calls our "lizard brains". We hold meeting after meeting, re-read reports, and delay product launches because we're fearful of getting things right. But the truth is, "done" is better than "perfect". It goes against our instinct, but when we're close to reaching a goal, we have to fight and push through and call things done.

Summary

So yes, less than 1 year ago I was paralyzed, as many are, by my own goals. I made excuses for why I hadn't started. But I pushed through hesitations and just did it. It wasn't easy, and I'm still no book-writing expert, but at least I can say I reached my goal.

Seth Godin, the author and marketing guru I mentioned earlier, is considered by many to be a genius. But in one of his talks, Godin shows a slide of all the projects he has "shipped" - books written, businesses started, etc - the majority of which, he says have failed. But a few succeeded - enough to make him the "genius" he is perceived to be today. The reason he was successful is because he just kept shipping, finishing, executing, and moving on, even if it wasn't perfect. Most things he shipped failed, but the few that hit made him what he is today. You just have to keep shipping. 

My book won't be perfect, and I don't care - because it's finished. After all, my real goal was to get a story out into the world. When you think about your goals, think about the goal behind the goal - are you trying to share a story? Are you trying to solve a particular problem? The book was just a tool - and whatever it is you have to reach your goal is the same.

So what do you do to get started?

  1. Identify the goal behind your goal
  2. Just do it! Start!
  3. List out the steps you need to take, then focus on 1 at a time
  4. When you're close to being done - be done!

Happy goal-achieving in 2018! And if you'd like to pre-order my book, you can do so HERE. 

 

 

 

Travel & Your Career: Refresh your Horizons

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After recently returning from a trip for both work + pleasure, I was reminded of how much I need these trips. Not just for the typical reasons of relaxation and "getting away from it all" but because of the positive impact travel has on my motivation and mindset when I return home. In this post, I'll pick apart a few highlights I've uncovered after reflecting on why I always feel a new level of clarity when I get back from a trip.

You're reminded that there's much more in this world than you and your problems

We'll start with the obvious. Getting away, whether for work or pleasure, particularly to a foreign country, resets your baseline for what's a big deal and what's not. By experiencing another culture and getting away from the drama, stress, and hype back at your day-to-day grind, you're reminded that there's a whole other world out there and somehow, your problems don't seem like such a big deal. By experiencing the difference in language, currency, food, and architecture I've always found that my focus shifts to appreciating and experiencing these differences. Subsequently, the "whatever's" I've been so wrapped up around back home fade away. It's like hitting the reset button on your emotions & focus.

You get an ego boost

Perhaps less obvious is how getting away makes you feel better about yourself. It's easy to get into a rut and feel unappreciated when you work with the same people every day. It's not necessarily a product of a toxic work environment, it's just what happens to us as humans - we take people for granted, and that can wear on us. In my recent experience, I gave a TED talk in Budapest, Hungary. Leading up to the talk, I felt as though what I've done in my career isn't so great, and I was almost embarrassed to talk about it. But what seemed as un-special to me was celebrated by the people I spoke to. People came up to me after me talking saying how inspiring my story was, and a big part of that was the difference in culture. All of a sudden I felt significance and appreciation for the experiences I've had. Why? because they were different, unique and special to the people in the country I was in. I was reminded to be proud of what I've done and more thankful for the people that have helped me. Sometimes we all need that feeling!

You're motivated by the people you meet

I met some freakin' incredible people on my trip. We all do when we travel - whether it's a musician, artist, or another professional, simply meeting somebody else who has accomplished something different than you and the people you're around every day motivates you. Usually when traveling you learn different career approaches, different educational backgrounds, and different accomplishments. I was incredibly motivated by the talented people I met on my trip - and that brought me back with a new energy to keep pushing and trying harder at my job here.

You get time to focus on you

For part of your time when traveling, you'll probably get some alone time. Whether it's on a plane or walking city streets, you get time to think. For me, I had a lot of time to walk the streets of Budapest, take in the scenery, and just think. It's so rare that we have that opportunity amidst the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, as much as we try or say we do. Would I ever take 3 hours out of a morning just to walk to the top of a hill to take in a view? Make time for leisurely lunch by myself? Heck no! But when I travel I do. There's a re-focusing, reflection, and clarity that comes from taking time to yourself. No emails, no phone calls - just you. It's forced meditation, and boy is it refreshing. During my alone time on my trip, I was able to think about my future. I set new goals and reaffirmed what was really important to me. I thought about the aspects of my career that are dragging me down and made decisions on what to do to get rid of those burdens. It's nearly impossible to do this if you never step away from the daily grind, and I'm so happy I had that chance.

In conclusion

I get it, you're busy and you think you're too important to step away from your day job for a week or so. ;-) Believe me, I was stressed about not having constant email access and missing phone calls and meetings, but you know what? The earth will continue to turn in your absence. In retrospect, the time I was gone flew by, I was still able to sneak in a few emails here and there, and nothing blew up while I was away. The benefits for myself (and my sanity), my career, the people I work with and the organizations I serve from Courtney-getting-away-for-9-days far outweigh the benefits if I had never gone. So whenever you can - at least once or twice a year, make time for a solo trip overseas. Your career will thank you!

 

Getting started in consulting: "you", the product

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I've had quite a few people ask me, "how did you get started in consulting?". It's a valid question, especially if you're very early in your career. How to find your first client and grow your client base when you have limited experience seems nearly impossible, at first. The goal of this post is to take some of the magic out of this process and share my personal experiences with gaining a solid footing in consulting only 4 years after graduating.  Be Present & Be Patient.

Our generation is prone to moving quickly. We graduate from college, take a job in another city, spend a few years (at best) there and move again. We're often impatient, and if things aren't going exactly as we expect, we decide it's time for a change. My 'luck' (not really, but let's call it that) in consulting is a direct result of the time I have invested in one place, developing relationships with the people here. Consulting is all about who you know, and I'm sure I don't have to tell you that networking is key. My first consulting job was the result of getting to know people and organizations, building trust with them (without even looking for a job), and low and behold, when an opportunity presented itself, I was there, ready to step-up. Gaining trust and developing relationships takes time. The last consulting job I got was with an organization I had known for the past two and a half years. I stayed in touch, grabbed drinks with the colleagues I had there, and when they needed somebody, I was the first person they asked. Why? Because they trusted me, and I had been a consistent presence for the past number of years.

Be Focused

It may take some time, but finding your "thing" is critical in developing a consistent reputation. Your reputation is what will get your jobs. e.g. "Oh Courtney, I know she's a great relationship builder - I think she's a business development consultant". It took me some time to find my focus in consulting, especially since I was a recovering engineer with an engineering degree who happily fell in love with business development. A good tool for finding your "thing" (in the case you don't already have one) is to try Strengthsfinders to help you focus.This online test identified what I was good at in the context of the workplace. It helped me take the idea of "sales" and match it to my personal strengths. Then I stuck to it. Sure, I could easily consult in other areas, and this might be tempting at first. When I started, I was presenting myself as a sales consultant...and a pitch coach...and a STEM education consultant. Soon enough, I couldn't easily explain what I did when I met people. That's BAD. You want what you do to be obvious. Just because you can do multiple things doesn't mean you should. Just like a startup company, focus is critical, especially when you're just getting started. Using strength finders as a tool, I picked my strongest area and I focused on that.

Be Valuable

It might sound strange, but you are product, of sorts. You are unique, you solve somebody's problems, you have competition, and of course, you have a price. Once I had my strengths identified, I could easily pitch myself as a "product". Think through what you do, why you're better, what makes you unique, and most importantly, what problem do you solve for your customers? This will help to identify your target clients and craft a value proposition for yourself, targeted at that audience. As an example, what makes me unique is my engineering background and the fact that I'm good with people and a good communicator. I also had experience with young, innovative companies, so that set me on path to be a great "solution" for tech organizations that needed business development help. I already spoke the language of their customers - this made me stand out from other sales consultants that simply graduated with a sales degree (my value prop!). Finding the problem you solve and positioning yourself as a solution to your customers is key - and the great part is that this process follows in line with any business model, so it's easy for your to read-up on.

A note on personal brand: you hear about "building your brand" a lot these days. That is nearly complete bullsh*t (excuse my language). If you think of yourself like a product, what would happen if a product had nothing but a brand? Will anybody buy it? A brand is merely one very small component of you - you have to focus on the problem you solve, for who, and why you are better first and foremost. The brand will come later. 

Be Known.

Directly related to networking is the need to make yourself known. Once you have established your "thing" and found your value proposition and ideal customer, you can't just sit around waiting for clients. Continue to network, and when you do, make sure you have an online presence. Establish a personal website - doesn't have to be fancy, but invest a few hundred dollars in a domain with your name, a simple Wordpress template, and populate with examples of your work and a way to contact you. I've gotten numerous requests directly through my personal website. Make sure you have business cards, and make every effort to gain media recognition. Lucky for me, I have been involved in organizations that gain media attention for awhile, but I've also been fortunate to be nominated for local awards (e.g. Crain's Cleveland 20 in their 20s). How do you get awards? I can honestly say I have never self-nominated for anything. My nominations have come through my personal network, so once again, your reputation and your network is key!

Be Good. 

Last but not least, if you're a product, you should be a high-quality product. This means delivering consistent, best-effort work for every client you have. And even if you don't yet have a client, having character and working hard at your current job is equally important. I've gotten referrals for consulting gigs from previous employers, and repeat business because of my reputation. Even if you're not out trying to gain new business, make sure you're always at your best. It's simple, but one half-assed project could set your career on fire.

 

 

Wallking away is not giving up

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As we look into a new year, people are making changes. Promises to try harder, accomplish new goals and perhaps, give up whatever is toxic or negative. I thought this would be the perfect time to share my thoughts and feelings on walking away from something. For me, this happens to be about walking away from the company I started nearly 7 years ago now. Choosing to walk away from something you started is never easy. You recall the time you put in, and how you identify yourself by "it", this thing, whatever it may be. When you think of the awkward conversations you'll have to hold with your peers and loved ones, you cringe. Although you know they don't fully understand, you can't bare the thought of having to respond to questions like, "... why now?" "...you put so much time into this" "...there was so much potential there" and God forbid, "...you were so close". As much as we like to retweet photos with inspiring quotes such as "if at first you don't succeed, try try again"  we never think we'll have to "try try again". We think our ideas are the good ones. We're the exception to the rule. In our society, walking away from things has adopted a negative connotation - almost as if it is analogous to failure. Why do we associate walking away from something (when we know it's the right decision) as a "failure", and why has it become so hard to do?

I want to make a case that walking away, when the time is right, can be actually be the definition of success for you. I've mapped out a series of questions you can ask yourself to evaluate if it's time to go, or perhaps stay. There's no one right answer here, but had I been honest about these before, I might have left sooner.

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Question 1: Are you producing, or are you just doing?

Entrepreneurs (and entrepreneur-types) are particularly bad at saying "no" to new opportunities. Oh, and they're definitely worse at giving up something they once said "yes" to. If you want something done, ask a busy person, right? Even if it's subconscious, entrepreneurs tend to define how successful they are by how many "things" they can do at once. How many boards can I be on? How many student groups can I volunteer for? How many side jobs can I pick up? Entrepreneurs aren't so great at stepping back to evaluate if they're actually being productive with their busyness.

Ask yourself: is what you're doing helping to move your company/thing forward?

For my startup, part of our issue was that while we were doing things (entering competitions, heck, even winning competitions) we weren't moving forward as an organization. Just because you're winning business competition doesn't mean your company will actually be successful. It's easy to get caught up in award ceremonies and big checks and fall into the illusion that you're doing fine. Why? Because it feels good. Hard work, accepting feedback and re-doing your business plan isn't fun!

Nobody ever congratulates a chef for buying the ingredients. - A damn-good piece of advice from a silicon valley investor on how we over-glorify success funding rounds

Don't forget you're here to make something real, not play pretend. I know it doesn't feel as good as winning pitch competition after pitch competition, and having nice articles written about you, but just think of how silly you'll look if you don't actually follow-through. Focus on getting the work done - the "fame" will feel much better once you're successful.

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Question 2: Do ya love it?

Another one people love to quote/tweet about: "it's all about the passion", "passion is key to the success of your startup". I wish I could take a poll to see how many founders actually feel passionate about their startups vs how many just like the idea of being a founder (because startups are sexy, right?) If I were to guess, it's less than we let on to, and I'm sorry to say it's been true for me. I've been interviewed countless times, stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people and put on the "I love this stuff" face so many times, when honestly, I haven't "felt it".

Why do we do this to ourselves anyways?

Much like a failing marriage or long-term relationship, I think we feel  pressure to "be" a certain way with our startup.  It's taboo to admit it when something is seriously wrong, even though that's exactly what you should be doing. Now that I've left and found other work I am truly passionate about, I see the difference, and it means everything, folks. I think a lot of people simply haven't experienced "true startup-love" before. So they settle and try to make it work for the sake of that potential big exit or the money. Treat it like a real-life relationship: if you're in it for the money, you're in it for the wrong reasons. Trust your gut, it's gonna get rough, and you can't fake it long-term.

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Question 3: Do you have the right team? Really

I am convinced that the biggest contributing factor to your startup's success is the people behind it. Hands down, no questions asked. It is not your product. It is not your business model. It is not your funding.

It's your people.

This was ultimately our biggest pitfall as a company.  And the best way to explain it is by telling our story (I can't many details here but hopefully you'll get the point):

We had a great technology, a reasonable business plan, plenty of investment potential. Timing was good. People were interested. We were winning competitions. The team started off great. But the minute we decided we weren't good enough to run our own company, we lost our potential. We decided we needed somebody with "experience" and "a name" to run the show. Even though he never really "fit", we thought we were doing what you're supposed to do - hire a resume and the funding will come. Not to say all experienced team members and strategic hires are bad. It was the fact that we didn't trust ourselves or trust our gut with this person, and decided to hand-over the fate of our company to them when we had a feeling he didn't share our values & goals. Gut-instinct is more important than you think...another lesson-learned.

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You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. - Steve Jobs

So how does one team member take down a company?

High level answer? See questions #1 and #2  (in case you forgot and don't feel like scrolling - are you really producing or just doing "stuff"?, and do ya love it?). This person didn't share our passion, goals, and vision and was always chasing the shortcut rather than putting in the hard work. But part of this was on us too:

  • We lost faith in ourselves - we let somebody else drive
  • We didn't trust our gut when we didn't feel this person was a fit
  • We didn't act soon enough when things went bad
  • We didn't invest in the operating agreement, corporate governance, and employment agreements
  • We didn't go to other people for help until it was too late

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But it's not really all doom and gloom...

Some people wanted us to fight our way through it. "Isn't there some way you can work this out with this team member ....?". It's tempting (again, for what reason exactly I don't know) to keeping beating the dead horse. When trust is broken in a relationship (business or personal) the relationship is done. We knew that no matter what pieces of paper we all signed, how much money we spent on attorneys, how much time we put in "mediation" (startup marriage-counseling, basically), we couldn't trust him anymore. Further, we didn't share common goals. We knew nothing would change his personal objectives, and nothing would change ours. Some things, even as you put time and money into it, you simply cannot change. You can't change people - people can only change themselves.

Time to go!

"Failure isn't fatal, but failure to change might be" - John Wooden

How does our story end? Well, it's still in process, but today there's a chance that through a variety of ways, our technology can live-on and be transferred to the hands of a team that is actually capable of bringing it to market, which is our only real goal. To see our work in practice. Sometimes you have to let something go in order for it to reach it's full potential and sometimes you're not the right person to do it. As entrepreneurs, we need to get better at accepting these facts and moving on.

In my opinion, this is not giving up, and this not failure. This is smart, and something we should have done a long time ago. But just as there's never a perfect time to start a company, I guess there's never a perfect time to walk away either.

The positives of walking away:

  • There's always some way we can use the knowledge we've gained to do good in the industry we've gotten to know so well. I now have a chance to be on the Board for a cleatech organization and help other startups in the same field- really exciting!
  • We can start another company with the members of our team that worked.  For the parts of our team that shared the same goals, we can do great things together in the future. The time we invested together is not lost.
  • We can use the network we've developed to start something new, or help others within that network.
  • Most importantly, you learn a lot in 7 years. Now, we can now go and help other startups avoid the pitfalls we fell into.

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I love the startup environment, and my time with DFT has led me to career that I'm incredibly passionate about -  serving other startups through a great local nonprofit called Launch League. And maybe that was the purpose of all this for me in the first place, who knows?  I can't wait to see what's next in 2017. It's the mystery in life that makes it exciting, right?

Thank you DFT, and my founders, Tom, Terence, Richard and Zac, for the many years of learning, travel, meeting great people, and challenges. You've made me a better person, and for that I'm forever thankful.

“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” - Denis Waitley

Reflections on Running the first-ever Midwest Startup Conference

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As you may or may not know, I've been spending the majority of my time over the past few months planning for something big. Plenty of people thought we'd never pull it off, but our small-but-mighty team of 3 at Launch League hosted the first-ever Midwest Startup Conference, Flight on Friday, December 2nd, 2016 at the John S Knight Center. If you'd like to learn more about what this event looked like, check out my blog in Launch League's Directors Notes below:

Read more about how my team at Launch League put Akron on the startup map with "Flight":

http://www.launchleague.org/directors-notes-on-a-successful-flight/