How do you teach persistence, patience and teamwork? These are traits that we tell our entrepreneurs at the Innovation Hub improve your chances of being successful. There are of course many other traits needed, some more technical than others. You can always learn the technical stuff on your own, in many cases for free or at a very low cost given today’s online resources. I would argue that the investment in time is perhaps the biggest one you would have to make to add knowledge to your technical skillset. But what about the softer skills? You learn these by interacting with other people, by living and working in community.
In startup environments, organizations are small. The “community” is reduced to a duo, trio or very small number of people, and these soft skills are paramount. The survival of the enterprise is highly dependent on each one of the co-founding individuals. As a Kauffman Foundation video I recently shared during the accelerator boot camp shows, when a single employee slacks in a large corporation – depicted in the cartoon as a big ocean liner from which a tiny passenger falls overboard – it can be a while before anyone notices. In a startup, before organizational charts are drawn and when everybody in the founding team has been brought in to complement the expertise, skillset and experience of each one of the other co-founders, if someone is not pulling their weight, failure happens. In the cartoon, this is depicted by a small group of 4 or 5 individuals in a small row boat dwarfed in size by the big ocean liner in the distance, paddling frantically in a sea full of sharks. If they do not paddle in harmony at unison, they don’t advance in any one direction and the sharks reach it, chomp off a section of the boat, and it sinks with the whole team onboard.
Failures such as these may be purely technical, obviously limited to the aggregate current level of the team and its capacity, inclination and speed to acquire more technical skills so they can deliver better value in the market. Technology advances at such a breakneck pace that the mere speed at which the founding team needs to update is simply too fast for some. Other times the failures are related to soft skills, to compatibility issues. In a competitive environment, when thrown into teams, and collaboration is needed to stay afloat, the capacity of the individuals to show persistence in the framework of patience, and teamwork based on respect becomes a challenging feat. These qualities are easier to learn the younger you are. If you learn them as a child, they become part of who you are and the way you treat people – which brings me to my picture above.
It is that time of the year, so over the weekend I pulled out a garland with lights we hang over one of our living room windows. One of the two sections, each with about 50 lights, would not light up. The easy way out would have been to spend $40 and buy a new set – but I had in my hands an incredible opportunity to teach the lesson I explained above to my 12 year old daughter.
The lights in the garland are wired in series, and they represent all the individual members in the team. You may think the team is rather large – 50 – if you think of it as a startup – but there is a feature that actually makes it like the startup in the row boat that I will explain shortly. The team has one and the same purpose: to have all the individual lights shine brightly, with no gap in the line. Since there is no transformer (that is what makes these lights so inexpensive), the full 120 Volts (nominal) coming from the wall outlet divided by say, 50 bulbs, drops to 2.4 Volts per bulb. The filament in each bulb provides the resistance that makes it light up for a long time before it burns out, if all the other bulbs are taking on the same load. When operating like this, in unison, the life expectancy of the whole string of lights is maximized.
If one bulb fails prematurely, its load of the voltage has to be taken on by all the functional ones. Even a tiny increase in the load shortens the life span of the remaining bulbs significantly. Eventually others fail, and the results snowball until you have a cascade failure. That is why as in a small startup, when one of the founders is not pulling his or her weight, it jeopardizes the whole enterprise. Unnoticed, the effect of one or two bulbs eventually leads to the failure. In a large enterprise ship, someone jumping overboard would not be noticed for a while, and regardless, the ship would maintain its course. In the small row boat, as in the string, one wrong member can sink the ship. That is why if you don’t want to buy string lights every year, you should be checking and replacing the bad bulbs, to avoid cascading burnout. By the same token make sure you have the right founders in your startup and bring in the right initial employees if you want it to live long and prosper.
Oh! And I almost forgot, if you want to teach a 12 year old patience and persistence, have her unplug 50 tiny lights, have her take each bulb out of its little plastic base, replace each bulb with a good one and bend the little contacts around the base the right way, test it with a battery operated tester and once she reaches 50 good ones, have her install them into the sockets – and of course wait until all bulbs are replaced before plugging into the wall! Of course I helped, I can’t think of any greater bonding therapy for dads.