My Favorite Startup Wisdom Came From Critics

Startup Tips, Guest Post, YEC,StartupsMy mentors are not the bite-sized platitude types. And no entrepreneur I know ever actually listened to advice — otherwise, we would all be IP lawyers like our parents wanted us to be.

Sure, we nod in agreement with the advice we get, but only because the advice we get is pretty benign to begin with: hire people who complement your weaknesses, fall in love with the problem you are solving and not the product, get in touch with your customer’s feelings, add cheerful touches of color to your office, etc. I can feel you nodding.

Truly “good” advice, on the other hand, burns like dirt in an open wound. The scar tissue that forms is the armor you need to survive the entrepreneurship battle. What kind of advice is that? It’s what you remember verbatim after all the compliments are forgotten: the criticism. 

Listed below, then, are my absolute favorite pieces of “advice” — and how each shaped my career to date:

1. “You know you aren’t good enough, right?” In the Lifetime movie of my life, I have a snappy reply, like, “Move over old man, ‘cause ladies are doin’ it for themselves!” In real life, I was stunned into submission as the advice-giver planted a big wet kiss on my cheek and whispered something about me reminding him of his daughter. Yuck!

But here’s what’s even more shocking: I agree with this criticism. I am not good enough to do a startup on my own. I am not a truly gifted and creative physics savant, but my co-founder and CTO, Robert Kester, is! I am also the type of person who would forget to pay quarterly payroll taxes. Luckily, the lovely Kayla Porche, our Accounts Manager, would never allow any such nonsense, and so our ship runs very smoothly.

I am not good enough in more ways than I can count, but I am very good in the few things that a CEO needs to be good at: I have excellent taste in people and technologies, I have a vision the whole company believes in, I can sell ice to Eskimos, and I am arrogant enough to ignore old dinosaurs who think they are doing me a favor.

2. “You won’t make any money.” Keep this between us friends, but I would totally do this job for free. Today I can earnestly say that my colleagues and I made the world a better place. And we do, in fact, make quite a bit of money — go figure!

On day one, you and your co-founders need to decide exactly when you want to cash in your chips and exit the company. The path you choose needs to fit your personality type as well as the true potential of your company.

Do you want to sell the company in two years for mega-bucks? OK, then you should probably follow the traditional VC route that looks to sell fast and inflated (think force-fed duck for foie gras). Generally, the company will need to have a massive market size and be easily scalable. This rules out most companies.

If you are a young founder, there is a very high chance that you will be pushed aside. Are you OK with that? When you spend your money, will it bring you joy?

Do not forget the joy multiple when considering how much money you want to make. When I go buy a new car, I get the happiness from the car and the extra joy from remembering how I came to afford that car. Unfortunately, I meet too many depressed founders who seem a bit lost. If the money does not bring you long-lasting pride and joy, then it was all for naught.

3. “You’re a b—h.” I was 12 years old when someone close to me first called me the b-word. I am all grown up now, and my response is, “Yes, but I’m a glorious b—h.”

I don’t get this said to my face so much anymore, but I still get that look. If you are confused about what this look is, try an experiment: Disagree with a 40-something-year-old VC about one of their recent investments.

Yes, ladies, being a young female entrepreneur is going to be much less fun for you than your male counterparts. The boys  get more dates and the girls get thinly veiled hostility. You will not be liked for your success. But you’re not doing this to be liked, are you? (See: Sheryl Sandberg’s 2010 TED talk.)

Ignore the people trying to bring you down a peg. And do not, not, not give up and become an attorney/consultant/doctor. I am sick of being the only young woman on the entrepreneurship panel. Please join me!

Finding the starting line will be the hardest part. It may take years to form the right company, but you will be successful because you, my friend, are a glorious b—h.

Allison Lami Sawyer is the CEO and co-founder of Rebellion Photonics.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.

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