Sorry guys, I tried to make this funny without a lot of success. So, I’ll try to be succinct. And there is a funny (to me) picture at the end.
Almost every impact entrepreneur I know has experienced significant depression or anxiety over some stretch of their journey. I have a few simple recommendations for anyone going through this. Funders of impact entrepreneurs have a enlightened self-interest to offer long term mental health resources to the people in whom they invest.
I got a nice response for the previous post on The Long Startup. A number of people got in touch to share their own experiences and add a few things to the list. Some people talked about raising money. Some people talked about recruiting. Some people talked about working with government. But every single one of them talked about depression, anxiety and the effect this work has had on their mental health. And most of them thought they were the only person going through it.
I don’t know why this was so surprising to me. People are finally talking about depression in mainstream entrepreneurship. I can’t be the only person who reads Brad Feld’s blog specifically for the posts on depression. You should go read them. As an admirer of Brad Feld’s, I would offer that impact entrepreneurship is like regular entrepreneurship only it takes much longer, there are fewer examples you can refer to and in most cases you don’t get to dream about being rich at the end. Another thing I have been reading about lately is Imposter Syndrome, which is when a high achieving person lives with constant anxiety that they will be found out as undeserving of their achievements. Anecdotally, Imposter Syndrome seems to effect women, highly educated people and creative people disproportionately. Guess what group of people is disproportionately educated, creative women? Yep, impact entrepreneurship. For what it’s worth, almost every man I know has experienced it too. I literally jumped for joy when someone gave me a term to describe how I had felt my entire life.
Thanks to the Brad Felds and Sheryl Sandbergs of the world, there are now plenty of places you can go to read about the mental health challenges of being an entrepreneur or being a person trying to balance career goals with other life goals. I won’t restate them here. I would point out that impact entrepreneurs face these same challenges with a few added wrinkles:
I have struggled with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. I self-medicated until I was almost 30, and it had a pretty toxic effect on my work and my relationships with other people. Since then, I have managed by being mindful of my own mental health, being aware of my natural cycles and the situations that either fill up or draw down my emotional reservoir, but it’s definitely a work in progress. There is a longer story that explains why I am blogging to you from an office above a beer store across the street from my kids’ school, but we don’t know each other well enough for that yet. I am not a professional (Note: If you are in trouble, go see a professional. Please.) but I have my own tips and strategies that I share with anyone who asks. As importantly, since I have become more comfortable talking about my own challenges, people have been more inclined to share theirs with me, and any time someone shares something useful with me, I file it away in my “Hey, I should tell other people” file. Here are a few:
Reject counterfactual thinking - At their darkest moments, the top two laments of impact entrepreneurs are:
When I used to work in large organizations and have my own attacks of Imposter Syndrome - when I was sure that I would be found out and fired at any minute - the best thing I could do was compare myself directly to my peers, about half of whom were mouth-breathing jackasses. (Just kidding person reading this blog I used to work with!) That would calm me right down. The problem with being an entrepreneur is that you don’t have peers to compare yourself to, and you will always be lacking in comparison to your idealized self.
Find a Peer Group - One of the most helpful things for a person going through a rough patch is just to know that their situation is not unique. Unfortunately, a lot of impact entrepreneurs are isolated from anyone who shares their experience. Find at least three people who are in the same boat as you, preferably in a completely different area. Talk to them at least once month. You will likely find that being helpful to these other people is its own reward.
Find a Mentor - Find someone who has done something similar to what you are trying. Find someone you can speak honestly to about how you are doing. Talk to them at least once quarter. By the way, your investor is not your mentor. You need to reserve the right to shine them on occasionally.
Talk to a Professional - Like I said, I am not a professional. If you are having real trouble, don’t read my dopey blog. Go talk to someone who knows what they are talking about.
Don’t Sacrifice Too Much - A mentor of mine, someone who has founded two different successful social impact companies, said something pretty profound to me a few weeks ago. “Now that I know how it turned out, I'm glad I did it, but I am also glad I didn't sacrifice anything important to get here.” We’re talking about social changes that happen on a decadal scale, and a lot of the things we try don’t work out. Pay attention to your family and your friends. Have a good time. Take care of your health. After all, you’re going to be doing this job for a long time, and who knows how it will work out. Be happy while you’re doing it.
One big idea for funders: Fund mental health services for your portfolio
When I was at the Lemelson Foundation, we funded a great organization called Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation. LMPBF provides pro bono connections for impact entrepreneurs to attorneys around the world with specialized legal expertise. A entrepreneur can call LMPBF, describe the issue they are facing, and they are connected with someone who will help them. We figured, correctly I think, that having access to good advice on patents and contracts greatly enhanced the odds of success for the social impact inventors that Lemelson supports. It was kind of a no brainer.
Well, I think foundations and investors who support impact entrepreneurs have a similar opportunity in front of them. You are encouraging young people to embark on a career path that promises great personal (and sometimes material) rewards but that also promises a decade or more of the kind of mental health issues mentioned above. One could argue that these funders have a moral responsibility to provide long term mental health resources to their entrepreneurs, but I think there is an even clearer argument that a relatively small amount of money spent on things like peer leadership, mentorship and access to mental health professionals protects their investment. It seems like another no brainer to me.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on mental health, in honor of May being Mental Health Awareness Month. Be nice to yourself. Be of service to other people. Call me if you need something.
And laugh as much as you can.
Hi everybody. Today ran long so I will put my main point up top in case you don’t want to read a halfhearted partial book review before I get to it.
For a number of reasons, impact enterprises usually take much longer than traditional start-ups to mature. It is inadequate to transpose startup methodologies like lean innovation - which prioritizes agility over stability - into impact entrepreneurship without recognizing this fundamental difference. Impact entrepreneurship needs a complementary methodology that can teach entrepreneurs how build an organization that can survive, thrive and innovate for the decade or more it will take to have meaningful impact
I was going to spend today picking apart The Lean Startup, which is one of those books everyone quotes at you and almost no one has actually read. Silicon Valley has a tendency to adopt one of these books every few years - books which confirm whatever the prevailing wisdom of the time is, reframing it as just contrarian enough to flatter the reader (or, um, would-be-reader). The would-be-reader gets the high-level points from a magazine article or CNBC interview, then heads out into the world, biases confirmed, demanding of all his subordinates, portfolio companies, students, etc, “You have to read it right now, it is completely relevant for what you are working on and it completely changed how I think about this.” Then they state what had previously been opinions as newly-minted capital-F Facts. After all, they are in this book that everyone is quoting. Before The Lean Startup, it was The 4 Hour Workweek, before that The Innovator’s Dilemma, before that Crossing the Chasm. I once had a boss who made us all buy our own copies of Jack Welch’s Straight From the Gut, but in retrospect that may have been an isolated incident as that guy was pretty much a sociopath.
Quick aside: If someone actually read a book, got something out of it and wants you to read it? Nine times out of ten, they will hand you a copy of the book, and most of the time the book they are handing you will be dinged and dented and, you know, read. I give someone my copy of Startup Communities every few months, then I go buy another one. If someone tells you to read a book without giving you that book, and that person isn’t a librarian? Take the recommendation with a grain of salt.
Anyway, back to The Lean Startup. I, like the rest of you, had never read it, but people have been using it to annoy me for three or four years as its influence extended from VC funded tech entrepreneurship into other parts of the world, including social innovation. “Minimum Viable Product!” “Pivot, pivot, pivot!” “Fail fast!” “Continuous innovation!” “Ploughing time doesn't stop at night!” The buzz around lean startup methodology seemed to encapsulate the short-termism of the current bubble - a guide for redlining a team to quickly build something of value that can be sold to someone else before the ground falls out from under it, reflective of a peculiar time when a wide eyed college senior tells you the job they want after graduation is “Startup CEO” Oh, really wide eyed college senior? What does the company do? “Oh, I don’t know yet. I’m just really excited about entrepreneurship.”
My idea for today’s blog was that I would read The Lean Startup and then explain why it was wrong. I read it this past weekend and . . . it’s actually an OK book. For anyone starting a company or developing a new product, it is worth reading and engaging with. The core message - that products should be built in partnership with users rather than labored over in secret then unveiled fully formed - is hard to argue with, and some of the tools are helpful. And of course you want to develop things as cheaply as possible. The contempt with which the author, Eric Ries, talks about customers (in short, you should A/B test everything in small batches because customers usually don’t know or can’t tell you what they want) is exhilarating for anyone who has been across the table from a client who keeps telling you they want something that you know for a fact they won’t actually be able to use. Even the idea of the “pivot,” which for me encapsulates the worrying short attention span our era, makes sense in the contexts in which Ries puts the idea forward. It’s not perfect - there’s a lot of stuff in there I don’t think is particularly useful or applicable as broadly as he seems to think - but my idea to spend this post pointing and laughing fell flat.
Wow, so you just spent almost 700 words telling us what this blog post isn’t about?
Um, yes. I haven’t blogged in almost a month. I thought it would make you less disappointed in me if I made it clear I read a book for you during that time off. Also, I came with a clever title related to what I am writing about, but it’s not clever if you don’t get the Lean Startup reference.
So what are you going to be mad about today, Pat?
Well, I do think the ideas in the book are worth engaging with. I am not going to summarize them because most of you already know them despite never having read the book, and the rest of you can read them here. However, I take issue with the book’s “holy text” status, by which I mean that its mostly good ideas are now being presented as universal truths for all entrepreneurs. It is the dominant methodology at almost every incubator and accelerator I know of, including those that purport to care about social or environmental impact. “Lean innovation” is everywhere. My alma mater just sent me an email stating that they are even going to make lean innovation a core part of their non-profit management courses. And this unquestioning adoption of lean principles in other sectors, I think, is a mistake.
Why? Because, at the risk of oversimplifying, lean innovation is a sprint methodology, one which values speed and agility over stability. This makes sense for a tech firm going after a ready market and which is facing multiple competitors, hence the sprint to market. For the team of four ramen eating engineers that has 9-12 months to hit it big or die, this makes sense but it ignores a fundamental fact of most innovative impact-focused business:
They take a really, really, really long time before you know they’re going to succeed. Like a decade. Or a lifetime.
Look, I don’t want to tell anyone to work with less urgency or tell a new impact entrepreneur to lower their expectations, but I’ve been doing this work for long enough now that I have a reasonable number of data points when I talk about impact-focused businesses. The “Are we going to make a real go of this?” that takes 3-9 months for a tech start up can take 5 to 10 years for an impact entrepreneur, and at least once during that period the answer is most decidedly “No.” And it stays “No” for months. Or years. Categorically telling every company that they should burn energy and relationships agilely revamping their product and strategy during this long period looking for a quick fix is at best counterproductive and at worst teaches people they should quickly pull the plug on projects that could never have been expected to work in a few months.
For impact focused businesses, persistence is at least as important as agility. We need a complimentary set of tools for these businesses that teach them how to stay alive and relevant long enough to get to the point that they can be agile and high growth and all that good stuff. We also need to teach them how to preserve value and continue making progress during the long fallow periods that every one of them will experience. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I will give it a good first stab. And I am humble calling it The Long Startup methodology. Get it? The Long Startup? Get it? Well, it was funny to me. OK, question one:
Why do most impact-focused enterprises take so long to mature?
As I’ve stated previously, I am not the word police. Social entrepreneur, impact business et al mean different things to different people, and I am a big tent kind of guy. I use the terms interchangeably and here I use them to describe a person or organization that is developing a product or service that will have some demonstrable social or environmental impact, and is doing so in a market or context which purely profit-motivated businesses are rationally ignoring for now. I think this is a fundamentally different context from lean innovation, which is more relevant when you have a bunch of competitors that you need to beat to market and continuously out-innovate.
The rational reasons other companies aren’t interested in what the impact focused company is doing can include:
All of these issues take time to address and, as importantly, are often partially or completely outside of the company’s control. More than once I have waited alongside a hungry group of entrepreneurs for more than a year while they wait for the right set of licenses to start operating in a developing country. If you want to do anything innovative in ecosystem services in the US, I guarantee you will have at least one 18-month delay while you wait for a lawsuit to be resolved. Oh, and does your project involve an innovative partnership with a state or federal agency? Prepare for multiple 6 month periods where you are simply waiting for the next thing to happen.
Impact companies also have their own set of common characteristics that stretch out the reasonable time frame for innovation, including:
Both of these bullets probably deserve their own post at some point, but it’s really important for people entering this space to internalize that first one - that they are almost certainly going to fund their entities through a patchwork of different mechanisms. I can count on two hands the number of ventures I know who did the friends & family to seed funding to venture capital linear march that so much of our start up curriculum assumes. And most of the time, these other funding sources are better (or more available) resources than VC, so the delay is worth putting up with, but you have to be ready to deal with that delay.
The Long Startup
So, this is a first stab at some principles I have gleaned from watching many other people’s long startups. My dream outcome for this blog would be for a few other actual practitioners to pick this apart, improve it and make it something actually, you know, useful.
Rule #1: Don’t die - while you are working on your innovation and you are working on making the world ready for your innovation, don’t forget that you have to still exist when those two things intersect some time in the future
Rule #2: Stay active - What you are doing during those fallow periods to build your organization and to conserve your forward momentum, is still important
Rule #3: Be resilient - Not just emotionally resilient (that is important) but also structurally resilient. How can your people, your finances, your processes survive and thrive over a 5-10 year period that involves multiple accelerations and decelerations?
Rule #4: Be prepared to accelerate quickly when opportunities present themselves - when it’s time to step on the gas, have your people, your partners and your finances ready to accelerate
Rule #5: Be prepared to decelerate just as quickly - And ideally be able to decelerate without damaging your relationship with customers, with employees, with funders and with strategic partners.
Rule #6: Make allies - It’s going to be 10 years, and you are going to need as many friends as you can get. To the extent that I have any issues with lean innovation and the “move fast and break things” ethos we are teaching startups, I guess this is it. Shipping borderline bad products and constantly staying one step ahead of collapse can work for 3, 6 or even 12 months. But eventually, you get a reputation as undependable, and you lose people. Customers, regulators, funders - they all have to be able to trust you.
Underlying these big picture rules, I can think of a few specific recommendations, grouped by functional area. I am heavy on finance as that is where most of my experience is, and I am sure any practitioner could think of more.
So, there you go, a few thoughts by me on the nascent field of Long Innovation, which I think is a complement to, not a refutation of, Lean Innovation. I can think of at least ten people I’d like to run this by, and I’ll probably have a follow up post once I do. In the meantime, feel free to email me or use the comment section to offer thoughts, criticisms or anecdotes.
Patrick Maloney lives in Portland, OR where he helps nice people working on cool stuff. He tries to limit his blogging to things about which he knows something.