Austin Gunther talks about a group of entrepreneurs who told their stories and got vulnerable in a public forum. Kind of like Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris in the 1920’s.
What is it like to be a successful entrepreneur? Are they different from “normal” men and women? I don’t think so.
None of the 120 startup founders and entrepreneurs I’ve met and worked with in the past 2 years are superhumans. I’ve always noticed from a distance that what defines them as “entrepreneurs” is the ability (which they had to learn) to focus on different things than the rest of us. Now, working at WP Engine, a growing startup, I’m getting to see what this focus looks like firsthand.
So what’s the difference between “Mark Zuckerberg” and you or me?
Recently, I was at a PHP meetup with Jason Cohen, WP Engine’s founder, and Mark Kelnar, WP Engine’s head of development, to see about meeting some developers to hire (We are hiring, actually). It can take months to hire, and since we’re growing (really fast) we need to have hiring conversations all the time in order to keep up with the company. The sooner we meet someone, the better.
We all started playing pool. Jason and Mark are pretty great at pool, and I’m average :-). As the party winds down, and the open bar closed, Jason and I started drinking gin and tonic and talking about growing a startup, and what it means to have work that we find meaningful.
Instead of telling me what he thinks, Jason starts asking. He wants to hear me speak.
I was able to share my story of Rheumatoid Arthritis. My professional life has been profoundly shaped by that illness, and it’s cool to tell the story to people as I get to know them. I don’t tell everyone, but the people I do tell are important. Jason asked a few questions, but in general just gave me the opportunity to share one of the crucibles that continues to shape my life and my identity as a man.
The fact that I am having this conversation with my Founder, and my boss, is a good sign. The fact that we’re talking about it Saturday night in a bar on 6th Street in the heart of Austin, Texas, is even better.
Not everybody has a job where their boss, much less the founder of their company, will have a heart-to-heart conversation with them over drinks. Those conversations are not always acceptable in “corporate” cultures because of fear or whatever. Not sharing your life with someone out of fear sucks. Relating those stories with colleagues/bosses can strengthen relationships, and boost productivity. “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” is a crock of shit. Work is very personal, and life it too short not to admire and connect with the people you work with.
We started talking about startups and doing work that matters within startup companies. I took the opportunity to ask Jason about being an entrepreneur and starting companies because this year has been all about me learning what meaningful work is and evaluating myself as a potential founder someday.
I asked him about how he has formed a club with founders like Andrew Warner, and Adii Pienaar of WooThemes, Peldi Guillizzoni of Balsamiq, Amy Hoy. For example, look at the camaraderie that Andrew expressed with Jason in their most recent Mixergy interview.
Andrew said, “Jason, you’re a friend. You could wake me up with a phone call in the middle of the night and I’d make a pot of coffee to wake myself up to hear what you had to say.”
Sometimes I turn my phone off just so I *won’t* get those middle-of-the-night phone calls. What am I missing out on?
I asked Jason if that relationship with Andrew is the result of growing and selling a startup company, thereby “joining the club” of successful entrepreneurs. His answer was no.
Jason said that while, yes, there somewhat of a “Founders Club,” it’s not a club because everyone in it has sold a startup. The reason they’re in the club is because they’ve each bared their souls and shared personal details about the messy process of starting a company on their blogs. They’re friends not because they each found a buyer for their companies, but because they each found their voice by blogging and sharing their lives with the rest of the Internet.
That’s crazy. They’re friends because they each told their stories and got vulnerable in a public forum. Less “Founder’s Circle,” and more Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris in the 1920’s. Yes, either comparison is pretty damn flattering.
But why is sharing these personal stories so important to “becoming” an entrepreneur?
Because by telling the stories about the hard times, and sharing the hard lessons you had to face, you’re showing a willingness to grow and let life teach you the lessons that you need to learn.
When we talk about entrepreneurs finding success, we really talk about the ways they became better versions of themselves first, and successful in business second. In order for an entrepreneur to become successful, and to make lots of money in the process, he or she must continue growing as a human. My favorite example of this right now is Robert LoCascio’s Mixergy interview. Practically the whole interview is about his therapist telling him to “Stop being a loser and fucking his life up.” Robert apparently listened, let life teach him some lessons, kept growing, and so did LivePerson to nearly a $1B market cap.
I think Robert would agree with me: if your growth as a man (woman) stops at any point along the way, then your business will stop growing too.
Let me phrase that idea differently…
The more self-actualized and humble an entrepreneur becomes, they more they love their work, and the more money they stand to make. This is an infinite process. Rinse and repeat.
I believe that. I’m not sure how Jason would phrase it, but I see evidence in the blogs he writes that he believes something similar.
The more honest you are with yourself first, then you become more honest and open with others. Then you start feeling more genuine all the time and find yourself connecting with more and more people who are doing work you find meaningful. Then you find an opportunity to work with those people. And once you’re doing work that matters to you, with people you admire, you’ll suddenly begin enjoying a greater level of success than before. So you’re happier because you’re doing work that matters, with people you respect, and suddenly you’re waking up and going to sleep really happy about how you spent your time that day. Now you’re happier, so your quality of life has improved dramatically. And now, since you’re happier at home and in your work, you’re probably producing better work, which means now you’re also making more money. This becomes a vicious cycle of positivity, and you can look back every 6 months and say, “Damn, this 6 months was better than the last, and that 6 months was better than the one before that!” And that’s an awesome way to live your life.
That’s been true for me the last 6 months. Having been through layoffs at a well-paying, but meaningless job in 2011, I’m pumped about where I’ve come, and where I am today. Sometimes you have to lose the thing you didn’t want in order to receive the thing you do.
I told Jason, the work we’re doing at WP Engine makes me happy to get to work in the morning. I feel like the work and the company actually matters. I feel like the work that I am doing contributes something important.
When I told him that, Jason exhaled all of his founder stress for just a moment and said, “That’s good.” As if he was still worried about the success or failure of his company, and my small story was a tiny mile-marker that he was doing something right. Things are going well at WP Engine, but there was still some fear.
My feelings about my work and the company mattered to him. They were important to how he measured the company on some level.
Yes, we’ve got big graphs that show our revenue projections, and by the way, they are looking really really good right now. And I’m sure that absent those positive revenue projections, my particular affirmation might have gotten lost in the chaos. But all told, I still think it would have been significant to him, and I still think that he would have been happy to hear one of his employees talk frankly about what is important and valuable and good about the company. I still think my feelings on the work would have been meaningful to this particular founder.
And the fact that it was meaningful to him, made it all the more meaningful to me. Part of having meaningful work is having talented people to share it with.
We’re all chasing big dreams. Let’s make sure we’re chasing them alongside other people who are doing the same thing.
Maybe that’s all the “Founders Club is.
Maybe the Founders Club is made up of all the entrepreneurs who can connect with their employees and their blog readers as well as they can connect with their customers. That’s the type of club that I’d like to join one of these days. Call it “Club Meaningful Work,” and the only dues are to roll up our sleeves and start to improve our little corner of the world.
Let’s start that club today. Someone else can be CEO. I want to be Chief Membership Officer, in charge of enrollment. Admission is open to all. Say ‘hi’ on Twitter, @austingunter, when you’re ready to join the club. Zuckerberg is more than welcome to join if he’s not too busy these days….
Hope this Helps.