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The 10 (Real) Stages of a Startup

The 10 (Real) Stages of a Startup
Brooke Heffernan

Almost 2.5 years in and the hits keep coming. Every day is riddled with highs and lows. Owning a business is emotional. The old phrase, ‘it’s business, it’s not personal’ couldn’t be further from my truth. Every day begins, ends, and is powered by emotion. I’m not talking about unchecked, dramatic and reckless emotion. I’m talking about a driving influence, the kind of emotion where you care enough to be critical, take risks and truly celebrate wins.

Know this, if you’re starting a business, you’ll feel differently in each stage. You’ll leverage different strengths and find new weaknesses along the way. I’ve been fortunate to journey through it with my business partner Matt. We’re so far from our ultimate goal, but we’re still standing (stronger than ever, I might add). We’re still chipping away and we still love the challenge.

What are the stages of a startup? Oh sure, there are ACTUAL MBA approved phrases about the phases of business, but I’m referring the lighter side. These are the phases that people rarely talk about.

1. Blissfully Ignorant

This is the movie-like magic. Forget that, let’s do this state of mind. Let’s go our own way! We’ll build it better! It’s full of wistful enthusiasm and ‘how hard can it be’s?’ This description sounds woefully naive, but this blind passion fuels you for longer than you think. Anything is possible at this stage. Some entrepreneurs are famous for this perpetual thinking and brainstorming. I won’t be known for this. I don’t identify with this type of an owner.

2. Consciously Ignorant

If you’ve ever been in an awkward social setting where you keep smiling, but your mind is swirling with all of the uncomfortable observations- BINGO! That’s what this stage feels like. You’re smiling, but you’re very quickly coming to know how consciously incompetent you are. It’s a vulnerable place. It’s where the phrase ‘fake it til you make it’ comes from. You no longer don’t know what you don’t know. Now, you’re more painfully aware of those skill gaps. Worry not, I’ve yet to speak to another owner who hasn’t also dreaded this enlightening phase. Women, in particular, have a difficult time shaking this phase. Have you heard of imposter syndrome? Snap out of it!

3. Scared Out of Your Mind

This is the part where the band-aid has been pulled off. This is where you realize you’re at the base of the mountain and there’s so much further to climb, you can’t even see the top. This phase is daunting because self-starters are goal oriented achievers. We’re an impatient breed. While it’s always important to have a non-work support system in place, this is the most critical phase to have a mental cheerleader in your camp. The overwhelming feeling comes from when you feel like everything has to be accomplished all at once. Prioritization is hugely important. How do you climb Everest? One step at a time.

4. Personally Poor

Depending on how well financially prepared you were to take this leap, your personal financial well-being hangs in the balance. This too is relentlessly stressful because more than likely the risk that your taking in business, you’re also taking for your family. This is a pressure cooker. While it’s tempting to always dump money back into the business, it’s important that you alleviate that bleed as soon as possible. After all, you must have energy left over to fight all of the fires. If you can pacify your personal earnings, you’ll have much more to give the business.

5. The Grind

After all of the deterrents have been realized, this is the part where despite those obstacles you choose to keep moving. Dori’s famous phrase, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming,” comes to mind.
Big Picture: There IS a difference between working hard and grinding it out. You should always have a strong work ethic. If you’re onto building something great the grind won’t last forever.

6. Glimmers of Hope

The grind is paying off. You’ll start to collect some much-needed wins. You’ll celebrate small wins, but then you’ll see them pile up and you’ll seek larger victories. These feel fan-tastic! Hold on to these good vibes, but make sure that you understand HOW the win came to be. Dissect the win and take necessary steps to repeat it.

7. Unforeseen Setbacks (Pivot)

By now you’ll have experienced a collection of wins and losses. This is where you dive into the data that you do have. Recognize that you might not have an overwhelming amount of data, but you need to leverage what you have. Examine what is working and what isn’t. Look at what changes are conceivable, and which would alter the makeup of the company too drastically. Your ability to weigh the pros and cons and make decisions is important. Indecision is a decision, it’s just not a good one.
Pro Tip: Don’t follow an indecisive leader. The ability to make a quick and calculated decision is an underrated quality. I decide quickly, and if the decision pans out to be less than ideal, I very quickly decide to course correct. I don’t believe in giving people whiplash, but I do believe that people thrive on clarity.

8. Stability + Breathing

Enjoy this welcomed and temporary feeling with your team that helped you get to this stage. The hustle to this point can be exhausting. Use this plateau to recharge your batteries. Use this time to reflect and strategize on your next steps. Revisit the beginning, lessons learned and clarify your ultimate objective. Allow for some time and perspective to set up, but don’t let your momentum slip away. Dive in deeper and reclaim team commitment and expectation.

9. Growth

Startup companies are culturally very different from established companies. Strengths of the personalities who love the beginning stages of startup world are not always best suited for the next phase. That’s okay! As a business owner, understand that you too might be the problem. Always look out for what’s best for the company. Get creative. Be transparent. How can the company continue to thrive? Find ways to win and the people to help you do it.

10. Living the Luxury of Non-Essential Problems

For a long time, you’ve been dealing with problems that feel like life or death. More appropriately, these issues determine success or failure. Once profitability and stability are achieved, how do you make it better? How do you dramatically improve the customer experience? How do you dramatically improve the employee experience? When I refer to these non-essential problems, I’m talking about trivial decisions that result in one positive outcome or another. This is the stage that every amateur entrepreneur dreams of. I’ll let you know how that feels when we get there.

Brooke Heffernan
Brooke Heffernan
Partnership Director
May 29th, 2018 • Business Development

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