Well, 2017 really did turn out to be one hell of a year – and not entirely in a good way. But memorable it most certainly was, along with interesting and character-defining. And the upside of cramming so many highs and lows, endings and beginnings, losses and gains into a single year is, hell, it has been useful. It has been the making of me as a founder, entrepreneur and human being.
Everything valuable I learned came from other people, enhanced by the rare opportunity to have the time for both processing and self-examination.
“We all need redemptive assistance from outside” David Brooks, The Moral Bucket List, more below.
The danger of any list is in who you leave off. This one is by no means exhaustive and I apologise for both the accidental and deliberate (in the name of narrative coherence) omissions – I am grateful to everyone who has been there for me (and despite me!) this year.
In no particular order, here are 10 lessons I have learned, along with some of the people behind those lessons. I hope something resonates with you:
1. Jo Swinson and Transition
When I met Jo earlier this year, our lives had been strangely reversed. She had just been re-elected as an MP in a surprise UK General Election and was now Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat party, barely two years after thinking her political career, including as a Minister and Under Secretary State, to be over for good. She had joined my Board of Directors as she searched for new professional meaning and a sense of what next, and now it was me who was just days past having resigned from that company I had founded and with literally no idea of what next, or who I was now the core of my professional identity had been ripped away. I can safely say Jo was one of the few people who knew exactly how I felt – and was going to feel, once the reality sunk in.
In a characteristic act of robust, generous practicality, she interrupted her election celebration party to give me a reading list, including Transitions by William Bridges and Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra. Both highly useful books focus on the psychological process of transition itself, with Transitions providing a roadmap of the process: The Ending, The Neutral Zone, and, in time, The New Beginning; and Working Identities arguing that changing job or career is a long and tentative exploration of changing your whole personal identity:
“Act your way into a new way of thinking and being… Start by changing what you do. Try different paths. Take action, and then use the feedback from your actions to figure out what you think, feel, and want… Identify projects that can help you get a feel for a new line of work or style of working… Think in terms of side projects and temporary assignments, not binding decisions. Pursue these activities seriously, but delay commitment. Slowly ascertain your enduring values and preferences, what makes you unique in the world. Just make sure that you vary your experiments, so that you can compare and contrast experiences before you narrow your options.” From a review by Natasha Stanley of Working Identities
Transitions particularly struck a chord with me, especially the necessity of finding your ending, before seeking a new beginning:
“Every transition begins with an ending. We have to let go of the of things before we can pick up the new one—not just outwardly, but inwardly, where we keep our connections to people and places that act as definitions of who we are. Although it is advantageous to understand your own style of endings, some part of you will resist that understanding as though your life depended on it.
First there is an ending, then a beginning, and an important empty or fallow time in between. That is the order of things in nature.”
After a chance meeting at CivTech, I found a kindred spirit in Joe. He helped me start to really understand that you are not your company, there is no shame in failure and that there is actually such a thing as a rebound startup! (I didn’t know the rebound startup was a thing until then, but once pointed out it was hilariously apparent that that was what I was frantically engaged in, making it immediately easier to lighten up on myself!)
Common problems of under-capitalisation, product-market fit issues, slow sales cycle, and board/investor tensions don’t take away from the sense of personal responsibility and pain when your company fails to achieve your vision for it – but as Joe says in our podcast discussion: “we didn’t fail to do something remarkable, we didn’t fail to put every ounce of energy of emotion we could muster into the product…. I’m in a place now where I would never ever be if hadn’t had that 5 years experience and I have no regrets. You have a whole arsenal of experience that very few people have.”
3. Mark Logan on managing yourself in order to lead others
One of the key things Mark taught me, which we discussed in this podcast episode, is that to develop and scale as a leader you have to also develop as a manager, both of yourself and of others. As Mark put it, “your reading list needs to change.” Too many founders think that as they are leaders they can take pride in the fact that they are not interested in the boring detail management, or in becoming better managers. I know it is certainly an area I have to keep working on – as I would prefer to default to force of personality over process – but this is a mistake. Fear and stress are infectious and reduces the productivity of your team – you have to manage this as deliberately as you manage them. Process, good management and self-care practices, however much work they take, enable you and your business to scale. To a point. Others (including those you need onside) may not be willing or capable of coming with you.
Which brings us to another important lesson, which is knowing your own walk-away point. If you develop as an employee, manager and a leader, you’ll find win win is an option more often than you think. Until it’s not. If there comes a point whereby to preserve your self and your sanity/health for next time, you need to fold, then do so. Leave. Walk away. Get another job or prepare to do it again. “People often forget they have the power to leave”.
4. Stephen Budd – go work on your eulogy virtues
Stephen is my two times co-founder, partner of 25 years and the general wind beneath my wings (he hates that term). With a little help from David Brooks, author of The Moral Bucket List and the Road to CharacterStephen not only introduced me to the concept of eulogy virtues, but when I left my last company armed with nothing in the bank and a bunch of legal bills, he gave me the financial and emotional air cover to enable me to develop those character traits, rather than rush straight into another job.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of eulogy virtues, David Brooks explains:
“The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?….
We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character….
But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.”
I am extremely grateful for the gift of time and space necessary both to transition and to identify the kind of person I want to be. Maybe you have to stop doing – however briefly – in order to figure out how to start being.
5. Anne Ravanona turn gardening leave into a meaningful project
Anne, mentor and unexpected gardening leave guru, helped me devise a structured, meaningful plan to help me prepare to get my life back on track – and she got me writing (on the proviso I didn’t press publish until my leave was up!) Being a fairly literal person at times, my gardening leave involved, well…. gardens. I visited a new one each week, and should my scheduled garden-selfie be even a few hours late, Anne was straight in there chasing me. She instilled the importance of maintaining some routine and momentum while keeping it as a series of small, achievable projects (huge tip by the way if you’re ever in the same boat). She told me to stay home when she recognised it was really too soon be out networking, then pulled me straight back to speaking with entrepreneurs and investors as soon as the time was right. I doubt I will ever get the chance to repay this kindness directly, but I am certainly endeavouring to do so indirectly.
6. Tribes, old and new, who prioritise developing the entrepreneur
There are so many people I could name here, but I am conscious this is a blog post, not a thank you card list, so I have edited for thematic clarity (sorry!) I have been particularly humbled and thankful for the warm support and continued welcome of Sherry Coutu, Jess Butcher, Janet Coyle, my SVC2UK tribe – this year’s CEO Summit and Women Entrepreneurs events were lesson on their commitment to developing and enabling the entrepreneur, and I appreciated the kindness of my inclusion as mentor and table host. The same is true of my Scottish Enterprise colleagues who secured my a place at Scotland Can Do Scale Summer School – and to Noam Wasserman and Bill Aulet who took the presence of a living (if somewhat strung out and unhinged) case study in very good spirit indeed. I’ve been advocating the 24 steps of Disciplined Entrepreneurship and Founder’s Dilemma ever since.
It was also an honour and a real challenge to throw myself into Founders4School during its launch year in Scotland, to help inspire new generations into business and entrepreneurship. And what an amazing new tribe I have been embraced into by in becoming an Ambassador for Women’s Enterprise Scotland – a hugely impactful organisation aiming to drive up economic growth for all of society, by inspiring and supporting other women to start and grow their own businesses. Lynne Cadenhead, Caroline Currie and all at WES have welcomed me with enthusiasm and thrown me into a huge range of new challenges. Brilliant!
7. Sasha Novakovich and Elizabeth Sipiere on being board aware
Elizabeth, Sasha and a few lawyer friends along the way taught me one of the more painful lessons of this year – be board aware. Because once you lose the board, maybe by not being respectful enough or considerate of the specifics of their responsibilities or agenda, you won’t get them or your investors back behind you. And that’s how you get resigned.
Regular readers of this blog may be getting a bit sick of this one, but I am going to keep banging on about it until every startup founder and CEO I meet understands how this works. In the UK even a majority shareholding CEO does not control the company – so firing your board, however under-informed or misguided you may think they are, turns out not to be an option. Them firing you, on the other hand, is part of the job description and probably even a rite of passage for some. The board represent all of the shareholders, not just you as majority shareholder, and they will rightly pride themselves on this, being anywhere from fair but firm to destructively heavy-handed on this critical point. I wish I’d had someone like Elizabeth or Dean Nash, General Counsel at Monzo (podcast interview coming soon) by my side banging this one home until I really understood. I might still have my job.
I completely empathise why founder CEOs, probably all CEOs, get frustrated with their boards, who however skilled or experienced, are still likely to spend less time a month in the business than you do on a typical weekend. How can they possibly know what you know about the business? It is tempting to dismiss them as an irrelevance or inconvenience. And in the face of your discomfort or arrogance, it is easy for them to be too hands-off and spend insufficient time talking to teams to understand the real challenges or see beyond your personal flaws. Elizabeth once laughingly told me “oh you still have so much to learn” when I was expressing frustration that “they can’t do this, they just don’t get it”. Now I have learned…. They can, it’s their job, you just have to hope that enough good sense prevails for the common shareholder good.
But what if you think they are seriously wrong? What if they think you are seriously wrong? You’d hope for some reconciliation or maybe a CEO development process, but it doesn’t seem to work like that with founders. Personally, I produced a last ditch back me or sack me plan, but I think no one other than my more optimistic team members and I actually thought that would work.
“They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.” Nathaniel Lee
Once communication and mutual respect breaks down beyond a certain point, I imagine that it is pretty straightforward for a board director to convince themselves and the other shareholders that no CEO is better than you as CEO. And if the valuation and the results soar as a direct consequence, then I guess they’d be right.
8. Jim Sterne, Dennis Mortensen and the gift of extending your audience
The most fulfilling thing I have learned this year is to find my voice and take control of my own narrative. So much do I love creating the blog and Entrepreneur Agony Aunt podcast that I’d do it full-time if I could. But no-one wants to talk only to themselves, at least not indefinitely. If no-one was reading or listening, I wouldn’t do this, but it is hard to build momentum from a cold start. So I am hugely grateful to the kind people, including Jim, Dennis and Anne again, who supported me with timely shares, retweets and conference speaking invites. And joining Jim Sterne as a speaker at the final London eMetrics Summit definitely made getting resigned as a vendor worthwhile (software vendors are ineligible to speak at most conferences).
I’ll keep writing and podcasting as long as people keep reading and listening, so thank you to everyone who shares/retweets/posts my content, or gets in touch with comments and feedback. It is the most directly motivating thing you can do!
9. Anonymous and their malignant toxicity
The person who tells who you that you will never work/raise money/be taken seriously/whatever in this town again is more afraid of you than you ever have to be of them. I mean really? Who the hell do they think they are and why on earth do they imagine that even if they’ve broken you down, you’ll stay down for long? (Amongst the first people to call after news of my departure began to circulate were VCs interested in what I was looking at next).
If they could do what you have achieved in the first place, they would be too busy – and happy – doing it to waste their time plotting ways to destroy you and your reputation. So surround yourself with people who help hold you together, rather than pick you apart. Moving on and becoming the best version of you that you can possibly be is a joy far better than any revenge.
But – the sad fact is there are highly toxic, manipulative and dangerous people out there. Unchecked, it only takes one to wreck chaos on a company as they use their charm to lie, poison and destabilise. After I wrote about this earlier this year, I was more than a little surprised when another CEO got in touch who had experienced a very similar thing to me involving the same individual. I can’t stress how important it is that we talk to each other and to our peers.
It is also important that our advisors, boards and colleagues are aware of the risk and practices of toxic manipulators, as they are most likely to be willingly or unknowing pulled in to enable the sociopath or malignant narcissist’s plans. Dr Martha Stout, in The Sociopath Next Door, writes:
“Practice the rule of threes — One lie or broken promise may be a misunderstanding, two lies may involve a serious mistake, three lies — the individual is not trustworthy. Stay away from that individual”
“Don’t. 1) Run. 2) Are you sure you can’t run?
Accept that some people are just bad news: A tiger is not a good house pet. And you will not change that fact.
Pay attention to actions, not words: No excuses. No BS. Use the “Rule of Threes”
Build your reputation and relationships: You need a good defense and good advice.
Win-win agreements: Make it easier to go through you than to destroy you.
When in the middle of a deathmatch with a ruthless monster of a human being, being cynical is like having ESP. A jaded perspective can keep you one step ahead of them. But in the long term it can be toxic.
Don’t give up on all people just because you dealt with a really bad one.”
10. Entrepreneurs’ inspiration and efficiency loop
I recognise that it is a selfish trait of mine to be predisposed to like my own ideas more than other people’s and to talk more than listen. (I’m working on that). The biggest antidote to the negative aspects of this attitude has been getting out there and meeting an amazing number of entrepreneurs, including as a mentor, as a competition judge, by interviewing them, speaking at events or just meeting them for coffee or a call. I have genuinely come to realise that it doesn’t have to be my idea for it to inspire me into caring, believing, acting and occasionally wanting to participate in a big way. The entrepreneurship loop of inspiration and execution is about the people, not the idea and not their specific business.
Of course, there are pitfalls and I’m definitely not going to be shutting up about those anytime soon. But the best entrepreneurs I meet continually listen, learn and act (while also often still managing to talk a lot and drink tea). And though we do all still fall into making the same mistakes others have made (because they don’t make sense until you’ve lived them) I really do have hope and encouragement that the inspiration to execution loop really is becoming more efficient and supportive.
We try stuff, some of it works, some of it doesn’t. That is not failure, it is experimentation – that is how you learn and grow, and it’s not something to be afraid of at all!
Vicky Brock is a serial founder & entrepreneur, and the founder of award-winning AI and data technology startup Clear Returns.