Several work colleagues and children of my friends have had new babies since the start of the year, and it has reminded 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 a new, previously unmatched depth.
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, the new parents are as vulnerable as her, as emotionally you are just dependent on this new, vital person in your life. My two children are now in their early adulthood, and it’s been fascinating watching their development as they journey through life.
We all move through stages of physical, cognitive, and psychosocial growth. How much is due to genetics and how much is due to environmental influences and experiences, both within our personal control and beyond? 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 your own human development lifecycle, although obviously a different set of laws apply, but 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 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. Yet perhaps 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?
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 as romantic as that of any two startup adventurers first meeting – Jagger and Richards on a train platform, Hewlett and Packard at a family party, Jobs and Wozniak at a geeks club trading computer spare parts. Serendipity, chemistry and collision in both.
In response to Malvolioin 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.
Infancy: Vitality An infant is a vibrant, seemingly unlimited source of energy, with an inner 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 erects 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. Be careful your first articulation of your startup is a clear conversation, not babble. 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.
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.
Childhood: Playfulness & learning When young children play, they recreate the world anew. As you get into your stride with your startup, playfulness embodies the spirit innovation that underlies creative thinking, the sense of an inner self is alive. Imagination serves as a source of ingenuity that enables children to come up with marvellous, inventive solutions. In a startup, this ingenuity gives confidence in ourselves 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, as sooner or later the person pushing you has let go. Without getting into cycloanalysis, the moment of 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.
For a startup, this is the moment of risk for product-market fit, getting out into the market 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, fuelling the self-belief, just like learning to ride a bike you focus on the wide horizon in front of you, and you make something of it for 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 rather than right.
With dad left behind you, shouting encouragement proud and panting, you are now off 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 pootle 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, cultural, and spiritual passion. Passion for your startup is a touchstone for anyone who is seeking to reconnect with their deepest inner zeal for entrepreneurial life.
When I turned thirteen it was stubble, the first shadows of facial hair grew rapidly and randomly, and it got me thinking back to that first shave at the onset of puberty. The rite of passage seems monumental, frisky hair sprouting up all over the frisky body.
While shaving may be new to teenagers, it’s been around a long time. As early as 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.
Beards are back and the ‘hipster’ style is alive and kicking in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Home to many tech startups, there are dudes sporting neatly trimmed Vandykes, as Charles I sported at the scaffold, the sharp goatee of an old-time religionist, or even the waxed mustachios’ of villains from a Victorian melodrama. There are even a few with what I describe as the ‘Captain Birdseye’, a rampant bushy display, often resembling a mass of seaweed lifted from the beach and stuck on the face. I’ve spotted a one off mutton-chop whiskers – also known as Dundreary whiskers, Piccadilly weepers or bugger grips.
I have never been tempted from clean shavedness 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.
Businesses in this adolescence stage often see rapid growth in revenue, 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 for young adults to accomplish their step into adult life, including finding a home and partner, establishing a circle of friends, and getting a fulfilling job. This principle of enterprise serves us at any stage of entrepreneurial life when we need to go out into the commercial world and 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 maturity might help you keep your feet on the ground whilst metaphorically kissing a lot of customers. Now is not the time to get giddy, emotional and let your feet to leave the ground.
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. Anyone who’s thrown their hat in the startup ring knows there are many unforeseen variations on how the parts of this outline play out. Equally, everyone’s biological clock has its own unique timeline.
Startups are like teenagers: the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams, and go for it. 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 is about creating yourself.