If you’re an entrepreneur or hope to become one, the idea of “life lessons” might seem oxymoronic. You live and breathe your business; who has time for a life? Whether you’re working 40 hours per week or 100 hours, the way you approach the people around you will affect your success. As a serial entrepreneur, I call on these lessons often to inform my decisions about business, leadership and more.
1. You can do anything, but make sure you do something.
This nugget of wisdom came from my father, who long ago suggested I pursue a degree in computer science after I had changed majors several times, changed colleges just as frequently and took a sabbatical from school while I tried to focus on what would make me happy. I could have done anything; the key was to do something. For me, I knew what the “something” should be on the first day of my first computer class.
2. Don’t compromise who you are, but don’t expect everyone else to like it.
After college, I got a job as a programmer for the Navy. I was working on the Tomahawk cruise missile, but everyone I met assumed I was a secretary. This assumption drove me nuts. Once, a stranger in line behind me at the grocery store noticed my work badge and asked whether I was a secretary at the base. I gave her an earful about my programming job, and she gave me a lecture about war mongering, going so far as to follow me to my car to make sure she shared everything that was on her mind. I showed her who I really was, not who she assumed me to be, but there were consequences.
3. If you have to tell people how smart you are, either you are not that smart, or they are too stupid to notice.
By nature, the entrepreneur has big ideas — sometimes too big for others to see as viable. Even successful entrepreneurs face doubters, who might say that success stemmed from personal favors, privileged positions or other factors beyond hard work, great ideas and brainpower. Don’t give in to the doubters or spend energy proving them wrong. They don’t matter. The happiness of your customers and your employees defines your success.
4. Make sure you understand what you’ve signed up for (and that your family understands, too).
I got the startup bug about 13 years ago. Before taking on such a challenge, I discussed it with my husband and then 10-year-old son. I told them I wanted to be a founder in a company. I explained that my work partners and I would be taking money from venture capitalists and hiring people to work for us. We would be responsible for other people’s livelihoods. I also told them the hours would be brutal, and that even when I was home I would be focused on work a lot of the time. Basically, I told them that we’d all be founders, since this would change our family life. Because they both knew this was my dream, they told me to go for it. We all knew what we were signing up for, and that was a key to making it work.
5. Define success so that you recognize it when it happens.
I founded my first company in 2001. While we were trying to raise our initial round of funding, I had a conversation with a respected VC. He asked me what I would do to make sure the company was successful. I paused for a minute and said, “I’d die in the attempt to ensure the company would be successful.” He then asked me what a successful company looked like. I said, “Happy customers, happy culture and product leadership in our segment.” He said, “You’ll do.”
Later, I learned that most people answered that question by saying they’d “kill to be successful” and they’d measure success in dollars. Success is easier to identify with (and to achieve) when it’s about more than the money. I went on to help build a company called EqualLogic that was considered best in breed in its space, was profitable and had a high retention rate. Dell later acquired it.
The most critical life lesson for you as an entrepreneur is to identify what’s most important to you. Happiness should be the goal — your customers’ happiness, your employees’ happiness and your own. When you define what that will look like for you and for your company, achieving it becomes more probable.
Paula Long is the CEO and co-founder of DataGravity. She previously co-founded storage provider EqualLogic, acquired by Dell for $1.4 billion in 2008. She remained at Dell as VP of Storage, focused on the EqualLogic product line until January 2010. She has held technical leadership positions at several technology companies. Paula has won multiple awards including New Hampshire High Tech Council Entrepreneur of the year, the Ernst & Young’s 2008 Northeast Regional “Entrepreneur of the Year” and National Finalist for the same award.