The first stage of the Founder’s Evolution happens before you become a Founder. Without this first stage, the journey never is. While it is existentially vital, the first stage is far from comfortable. In fact, it is marked by dissatisfaction. It is by definition uncomfortable. And it needs to be.
Unfortunately, nothing great ever begins with comfortable people. When we are content, we resist change. We fight to maintain the status quo. We cling to and even defend what we have.
It is for this reason comfortable people don’t become Founders. Comfortable people don’t launch businesses, plant new churches, or start new nonprofits.
No one in their right mind would!
8 out of 10 new organizations fail.
Let me say that another way.
8 out of 10 new founders fail.
That stings a lot more.
Founding a new organization is incredibly risky. It takes guts. And honestly, it takes a little bit of crazy.
And this is what happens in the heart and mind of “pre-founders” at the genesis of their evolution. They are starting to feel a little crazy.
Feeling a little crazy
“Pre-founders” may begin “feeling a little crazy” for many reasons, but at their core exist one question.
“Isn’t there a better way?”
We tend to cast founders as unemployed slackers living in their parents’ basement, unable to get by in the real world or hold down a real job. But that stereotype is dead wrong.
The truth is, founders (especially those who succeed as founders) start as employees. And they’re not your everyday, run-of-the-mill employees. They often earn 25% to 50% more than the average pay for their role. And the type of role they’re in doesn’t matter. They can be servers at a restaurant, an executive pastor, or even a Chief Operating Officer. Whatever they are doing, you will find the vast majority of pre-founders excelling.
But what separates them from the rest is dissatisfaction. It isn’t enough.
Now it can be money, but more often than not, it is the freedom and autonomy to create a better way. A better way for their career. A better way for their clients or members. A better way for the world around them.
There has to be a better way. There must be more. And it’s here that the vision is born.
But it’s not quite time to take the leap. That is Stage 2: The Startup Entrepreneur.
Remember the 8 out of 10 who failed? Many founders who fail, fail because they jump too soon.
And this brings us back to the purpose of this entire series. You must first accurately identify the stage you are in and then work the right strategy until the transition happens and you enter the next stage.
So let’s look at the specific strategy you need to implement to make the most of Stage 1 and set yourself up for success in Stage 2: The Startup Entrepreneur.
To do that, I need to introduce the sports position we’ll use to illustrate Stage 1: The Trainee. The trainee is someone who isn’t in the game yet. But what makes them different from the spectators in the stands is proximity.
They are on the sidelines of the game. They are watching it first hand. They are studying and learning as much as possible. They aren’t trying to reinvent or revolutionize anything. They couldn’t even if they tried. They’re not trying to impose themselves on the game or tell the players what to do. They are students – watching and learning.
They’re on the practice squad serving those already in the game. In exchange, trainees gain experience and an inside look at how the machine works.
The metaphor breaks down
The metaphor breaks down here not because it’s incorrect but because it is so rare in the business world. Instead, we try to shortcut this step or skip it altogether. It’s more evident in the sports world because you can’t haul off and start a new team. Not in the same way you can start a new organization.
Anyone can start a new organization these days. It’s very easy.
And while I don’t think the government should impose any arbitrary limitations on the ability to start a new organization, as founders (or pre-founders to be precise), we shouldn’t confuse the ability to create a new organization with the ability to lead a successful one.
The difference is intentional time spent on the practice squad. As dissatisfied employees, we cannot let our dissatisfaction sabotage our success by making the leap and hanging our shingle too early. Instead, we need to leverage our discontent to make the extra effort to get around the best players in the game and watch them closely.
The essential strategy for Phase 1
And that is the essential strategy for Phase 1 of your Founder’s Evolution. You need to find as many ways as possible to get near the game, understand it, and practice it before you get into it. Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” And by getting yourself near the game, you are giving yourself the best chances of entering the game at precisely the right moment.
So get near the game. And if you’re wondering how, here are a few suggestions.
If you want to start an organization of a specific type or within a particular industry, or in a specific place, you may want to go work for someone else who already is (or is close).
This strategy won’t feel like Plan A. It may feel like a step backward. It may even be a step back in pay or benefits or hours or prestige. But it is one of the best ways to prepare yourself for the day you make the leap. And more often than not, it is better than the alternative – volunteering.
Yes, I’m serious. If you can’t get paid to learn the ropes, do it unpaid. The cost of volunteering is substantially less than failing as an entrepreneur 100% of the time. If you are that passionate about starting your own organization, then time spent volunteering for someone already succeeding in the space is nothing less than a worthy investment.
Volunteering takes a tremendous amount of humility. Especially if you’ve already experienced success in your career. But having started organizations that have succeeded and failed, I can tell you that you should never even begin the journey to becoming a Legendary Founder if you aren’t first willing to take on the humility of a trainee. Entrepreneurship is a constant lesson in humility, so you might as well get on that train now.
If you can’t get hired or volunteer, the next best thing is getting close to those in the game. Befriend them, help them, interview them, follow them on social media. Don’t be a stalker. Be a learner. Honestly, it will take some persistence. Successful people are typically busy people. Be civil but determined. Be clear in what you want but respectful of the boundaries they set.
Listen and read
The only way to evolve as a founder or any leader is to learn. It doesn’t matter one bit if you were great in school or not. Some of the most legendary founders never made it to high school. Others have graduate degrees from Ivy League schools. So classical education, for better or worse, is irrelevant.
What matters is whether you are a learner or not. If you get in the game thinking you know everything, you are in for a rude awakening. The particular challenge for a founder in Stage 1 is to both assume you don’t know anything before making your decision AND have unwarranted confidence you’ve made the right decision. Furthermore, it’s vital to know when to change that decision once you realize it was wrong.
The best way to prepare yourself for this paradox is to be a student of the game.
Surviving your time as a Dissatisfied Employee
Stage 1 is challenging. No one wants to extend and increase their dissatisfaction knowingly, but that is what being a Dissatisfied Employee is all about. What you’re doing is storing up fuel for when the going gets tough.
Because as uncomfortable as this stage is, it’s not very difficult. In fact, there is a special gift that you can only enjoy at this stage.
There is no pressure.
Sure, it doesn’t feel like there’s no pressure. You’re probably working at least two jobs. Every day you don’t make the leap feels like you’re dying inside, at least a little. But the truth is, there is no pressure. If you get near a game you don’t like, you get to quit before you ever start.
At the end of the day, if you work or volunteer for someone else in the game, the score doesn’t matter. You’re not there to win; you’re there to learn. And you can learn every bit as much from a loss as you will a win. You don’t have to meet payroll. You don’t have to pay corporate taxes. You don’t have to hire or fire people. At the end of it all, the buck stops with someone else.
Enjoy it. Seriously. Enjoy it.
These pressures are real. Ask anyone in the game, and they’ll tell you. So don’t miss this gift of Stage 1.
Now, you may feel like you’ve stalled. You’ll feel the impatience boiling. But know that what you learn in the following days and months can save you years and decades once you hang your shingle.
Transitioning Out of Stage 1
Throughout this series, one theme you will repeatedly hear is the need to assess your “when” accurately. To keep these articles from being 3,000 words each, I will return to each transition in a different series. They are essential to navigating the when of your evolution as a founder.
For now, I want to introduce the first transition so you can keep an eye out for it if you currently find yourself in Stage 1.
At some point, the frustration will hit a boiling point, intersecting with some external timing event.
- You’ll get a new boss at your day job who is simply insufferable.
- You’ll have a falling out with your current boss.
- You’ll get passed over for a promotion.
- You’ll be offered a promotion that you don’t really want.
- You’ll have a chance meeting with a potential business partner or investor.
- The timing will be just right for the market.
You’ll know in your heart of hearts it is time. And because you’ve been close to the game actively engaged in learning and preparing, you’ll be ready at a moment’s notice to make the leap and start your organization.
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