Lessons Learned from Five Years as a Founder
Today is the 5th birthday of our company.
Julie Fogh and I built Vital Voice Training as the voice, public speaking, and communication coaching company we wanted to see in the world. We were sick of the sexist, contradictory, confusing, and incredibly unhelpful conversation around women’s voices and how they “should” sound. We were disillusioned with the old-fashioned speech coaching industry – “learn to put on your serious voice”, which really meant “eliminate everything that makes you unique and distinctive and talk like the platonic ideal of an upper-middle class, educated, middle-aged white man”. We weren’t interested in teaching people how to put on an ill-fitting vocal costume in order to be taken seriously. We loved voices, and we wanted to empower the ones that weren’t getting heard. We wanted to show people the beautiful range of vocal, presence, and communication choices that they had available to them, so that THEY could decide how to implement them within their given circumstances.
If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be doing this, I would have thought you were crazy. I majored in Musical Theater. I was full-time pursuing a career that would land me on Broadway. I had “survival jobs”, of course, but those were supposed to require as little emotional and mental investment as possible, and you certainly weren’t supposed to LIKE them.
Over the last 10 years, and certainly over the last 5, my thinking on what it means to pursue dreams has widened and deepened, as have my dreams themselves. I’m so incredibly proud – and so wildly privileged and lucky – to get to use my skillset to help people, and for them to pay me for my knowledge and experience. I LOVE this thing that Julie and I created together, even at those inevitable times when I’m exhausted and over-scheduled and frustrated and feeling like a failure. We have met and worked with the most incredible people along the way.
In case you’re interested in starting a business or trying your hand at entrepreneurship, here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way:
You will NEVER get 100% of the things done that you want to.
You will rarely get 100% of the things done that you need to.
You will feel guilty about this . . . a LOT.
A co-founder relationship is the closest thing to marriage with a kid outside of actual marriage with a kid, and the same challenges apply.
There will be moments of incredible shared pride, times when your combined brainpower feels like the most powerful thing ever, intensely vulnerable moments of needing to say the unpleasant thing to the other person, inevitable disagreements about the best way to nurture and grow your baby business. Chose this relationship with the utmost discernment, but know that you cannot possibly anticipate everything when it comes to human relationships. Trust and a willingness to be vulnerable are so key. Being each other’s biggest cheerleader AND holding each other accountable is necessary. Working with the human being in front of you requires us to decide what’s worth fighting about or trying to change, and what’s not worth the energy. Outside counsel is sometimes necessary. And at the end the of the day, having someone be the other half of your business brain and the person you share both the pains and joys with makes all of this so much better.
Oh, and start with a partnership agreement that anticipates all the ways this could blow up and figures out what to do in the worst case scenario. It will protect the business, you, AND your co-founder. Talk through all the touchy stuff with your partner – finances, decision-making, biz goals, personal goals, etc.
Beyond a business partner, seek out, create, and nurture a real support system in your life.
Being an entrepreneur is stressful and can feel lonely – find other people with similar crazy goals. Beyond commiseration, you’ll end up sharing valuable advice, tips, resources, and contacts. As a bonus, some of the women I’ve met in the entrepreneur community have become my dearest friends. And when it comes to a romantic partner, make sure your person understands that building a business takes enormous time and energy, and who supports your goals, even when it means that you can’t “hang out” sometimes.
Take care of yourself.
It’s so easy to get into “head down” mode and forget things like taking walks, doing a workout, cooking or just enjoying a delicious meal without a computer in front of you, taking time to read a book or go see a movie, etc. Self-care isn’t just about indulgent bubble baths – it’s about renewing your energy so you can do the hard thing. Our brains aren’t capable of 100% productivity. Burnout is real. Protect yourself from it by spending time doing what makes you happy, healthy, and energized. It’s a smart investment.
Everything is figure-out-able.
I sometimes called it going to “Google University” . . . how many different things could I figure out relatively quickly by typing the right thing into the search box? “How to trademark a company name” – “How to get an EIN” – “What’s the difference between an LLC, S-corp, and general partnership” – “do I need insurance” – “how to fill out a K-1” – “what’s the HTML code to do this thing on my website”. Beyond the nitty gritty stuff, the more esoteric questions usually required talking to a human.
Time is your only non-renewable resource.
It’s awesome to have the DIY instinct when you’re bootstrapping, but consider that your time itself has value. If it’s going to take you 10 hours to figure out How to Do the Thing, it actually might be way more cost-effective to hire someone who can do the thing in an hour, so that you can do all those other things on your list that you’re not going to get to otherwise.
You don’t have to do this by yourself.
One of the advantages of starting a business with next to zero knowledge of how this stuff worked was being humble enough to ask for help and seek out knowledge. Fortunately, I found people to be really generous with their knowledge and skillsets. Just be careful to do your homework first – don’t be “can I pick your brain” guy. There’s nothing ruder to a busy person than asking them to give you a four-year-college degree in the basics of an entire industry over coffee, but you’d be surprised at how often that request is made. Specific questions usually get answered. General “how do I build a business literally from the ground up” questions get giant eyerolls.
Trust your gut – but keep cultivating it, because your gut can be WRONG.
The most expensive mistakes we’ve made happened when we let someone try to sell us something flatter us excessively – it feels GREAT when someone says “I’m dying to work with you!”, sometimes so much that you don’t really examine what you’re getting into. If the promise seems too good to be true, it probably is. There is an entire cottage industry of “experts” out there for entrepreneurs – coaches to tell you how to build a business, design an online course, sell an online course, “make 6 figures in the first month!”, etc. As stated above, we believe in asking for help and seeking out experts, but make sure you do your due diligence. Not all advice is good advice, and there are a lot of shady people (or more often, people with mediocre skills/knowledge and fancy branding) who make their living off of selling people this “6-figure lifestyle on the beach following your passion” thing in the form of their “6-week course, $2997 for a limited time only, there are only a FEW SPOTS LEFT!”. You’ll learn to spot the BS eventually.
Competitive instincts can be galvanizing or paralyzing, depending on how they are applied.
You can spend too much time going down the dark hole of comparison and jealousy over how someone with a similar business model is doing, who they’re working with, what ads they’re running, what courses they’re creating, how much money they’re making . . . or you can decide (and it is a decision that has to happen frequently) that there is business out there for all of us, and the right customers find you when you’re leaning into what makes you distinctive. Especially in the service/coaching industry, coach/client fit is so important. If you try to play to the average and be right for EVERYONE, you may never find your perfect kind of customer.
Play the long game on creating relationships with both your customers and your support network.
Ask and offer. Give and receive. Be generous. Don’t get caught up in thinking transactionally – these are human beings. Building true fans and advocates takes time, but doing it the right way means that they will truly go to bat for you.
Being generous doesn’t mean letting people take advantage of you.
Chances are, you’re going to be asked to do a LOT for free, or at reduced cost. Sometimes, it’s for a great cause, and you’ll happily say yes. Sometimes, it’s because people don’t really value you the skills you bring to the table (RUN AWAY!). Sometimes, it’s because people believe they can offer you fantastic “exposure”. Exposure doesn’t pay bills, until it DOES. Some of the things we’ve done for free have led to incredible revenue through the people we’ve met and the contacts we’ve made. Some haven’t. Knowing the difference between a great exposure opportunity and something that will take your time and energy and yield nothing is a matter of trial and error and experience. But know that the more you give away your time for free or reduced cost, the more you set that as a precedent. Stand in the value of what you have to offer, even when it means that you have to say “no thanks”.
Fear is the cost of admission to an interesting life.
Fear of getting it wrong. Fear of disappointing someone else (or yourself). Fear of looking ridiculous. Fear of not being in control. Fear of being seen as “too much” (or “too” anything, really). Fear of not being enough.
I’ll take all of that over the fear of wasting this one, small, insignificant, infinitely precious life. This is not pie in the sky “follow your dreams and you’ll live happily ever after” advice. This is “it’s gonna be hard and sometimes when you choose to pursue the thing you truly love, you fall out of love with it or deeply resent it or get paralyzed by fear of failure, but in the end, you hope that it’s worth it.”
Celebrate your wins often . . . even the small ones.
There’s plenty of time to worry and beat yourself up when things don’t go as well as you’d hoped, but that’s rarely going to give you the energy to get up and fix the thing. You did the thing! You are building something where nothing was before! You’re helping people solve a problem (that’s the basic premise of every business, right? Customer has problem, they give you money to solve it)! HOPEFULLY, you’re creating and doing something that adds value to the world, and that feels meaningful to you.
Thank you to everyone who has helped and supported and shared and worked with us along the away. We are more grateful than we could possibly express.