My Startup Story — Lessons from a Psychologist turned Entrepreneur.

A famous writer, cartoonist, and animator once said:

“Sometimes you will never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” — Theodore Seuss Geisel

And for me, the understanding of my moments came after I started to understand myself. Alas, beholden to you is a story of self-discovery…

I was the ripe age of 23 when I started my first business (in the back of my garage, as the story goes…) and waited until I was 27 to quit my full-time job. Now at 33 I reflect on lessons learnt from the past decade.

Until now, I have never been able to ‘tell my story’ — because what I went through didn’t make any sense to me (and yes, I felt like a mess inside).

Like many a reader, during lockdown I spent a lot of time by myself, with my own thoughts. The silence was deafening until I decided to open up and speak to whole host of coaches, consultants and therapists.

When I first started out with my business, I had all the symptoms of a first-time founder: imposter syndrome, burnout, and a rocky relationship with taking risks, to name a few…

I desperately (and somewhat embarrassingly) craved for a startup coach/consultant to ‘show me the way’, but had a mortgage to pay and was feeling extra frugal having just quit my corporate job, so I gave myself some macho-talk and ended up deciding against it.

And ultimately, I never ended up getting a coach/consultant at all in the ~2-3 years that I worked more or less full-time on it. I ended up closing the business when an unexpected fire burnt my warehouse down. I was broke and burnt out. AND get this — it happened around the time of a solar eclipse (~March, 2015) — an eclipse is often mystically observed to provoke changes that are more external, and force us to find a different route.

Trump and Melania observing the last solar eclipse in March 2015 — perhaps it foretold that he’d only have one term in office as president of the united states?

You could call the warehouse fire sheer bad luck, but there are 20,000 fires caused by electrical faults in the UK, and getting insurance is #business101.

Unfortunately, no matter how many ‘what if?’ decisions I made at warp-speed I fell short time and time again, either due to a lack of capacity or perspective. What I desperately needed was a half-time pep talk.

Of course mistakes are inevitable, but looking back I realise this: as a solo entrepreneur, persisting without a coach/consultant lead me to make a series of bad decisions and poor executions that could have easily been avoided.

Some harsh truths rang home, for example: ‘hindsight is 20/20’ and ‘people are your most important asset’. Shoulda, woulda, coulda…

You might say to yourself, ‘now is not the right time for this’ but I believe that in most cases it’s never a bad time to invest in yourself. And the home truth for me was that, I really needed to adopt a ‘beg, borrow, and steal’ attitude to this and just make it happen.

An even bigger irony perhaps, is that I was blindsided by my academic background too. There’s a tongue-in-cheek notion in social science circles: whilst psychologists understand others well (in their chosen specialisation) they are terrible at understanding themselves.

I think a lot of people get put off by the ‘self-help economy’ or any kind of consulting because it’s a lot like SEO: hidden and abstract. After all, psychology is a bit of a dark art — we analyse exactly how sociopaths, dictators and cult leaders, think. Unless in your spare time you take a specific interest in these subjects, one is left to simply muse about the ‘mad world’ we live in. Take the Peoples Temple as an example, how exactly does the cult leader Reverend Jim Jones persuade 900 Americans to willingly commit suicide together in a jungle in Guyana? Dark, dark arts.

People also — fairly or unfairly — give coaches and consultants flack because they’re expecting results on first try, or they want them faster. Most of the time this is not the case. But when you think about it, the value lies in realising that you are asking the wrong question and therefore, looking for the answers in the wrong places.

It just takes several forays to decipher the combination lock. Or to offer an alternative analogy, there are several missing keys to locate in the forest. Looking at it holistically, coaching and consulting is a unique combined approach to problem solving involving several attempts and techniques. Seeing it as a journey of discovery is a healthy expectation, as one thing leads to the other. Patience, young padawan.

Research unequivocally shows that the key to an effective ‘therapeutic alliance’ is 1) the willingness of the client to get help, 2) the relationship between the coach and coachee. Hopefully I have argued the first point in this post. The second point is a process — of joint exploration. The coach asks, “do I see this person, and can I get through to them?”. The coachee asks, “do I feel seen by this coach, and will their approach resonate through me?”. And then a conclusion is drawn by both parties. If jointly positive: “we feel we can work reasonably well together to get what both parties want and need out of it.”

After voyaging through the rough seas of entrepreneurship, encountering both friendly and hostile pirates along the way, occasionally jumping on board to help chuck water out of ships under siege— it feels good to return to my proverbial armchair as a coach and consultant.

I recently caught up with a good friend, an experienced and highly-skilled full-stack developer living in London. He’d been complaining to me for years that he was working insanity hours, and now, his health is suffering. He told me that he’s thought about getting a coach, but finds it difficult to quantify the impact that they might make. But here’s the thing, you can’t really quantify the statement “she changed my life” or “he completely changed the way I looked at things”. I can attest to this, personal growth is personal. We don’t talk about it much.

The story I now tell is that I committed to the study of entrepreneurship by seeing through other entrepreneurs (and their startups) before I was eventually able to see through myself as an entrepreneur. In all honesty — it felt like a bizarre and unintended anthropological experiment. And I humbly accept the realisation (again, this is backed up by reams of psychology research) that people don’t know themselves as well as they think they do, and we’re all pretty terrible at understanding each other.

If you’re a first-time founder or early entrepreneur, and have that nagging feeling that ‘things could be better’ then I implore you to knock on the door of the unconscious boss in the back of your mind — you have been re-booted in ‘risky startup mode’ (seeing red, for want of a better colour). Ask yourself: are my defences right up? And if your gut says that it is probably so, it’s time to find a crystal baller.

As woo-woo as this all sounds, I sit here tapping away feeling like some kind of ‘old hand’ that’s seen way too much. Then I realise, this is how I know that I am ready for my next journey of offering startup coaching/innovation consulting. I know exactly what kind of clients I am looking for, and what kind of problems I can help with. So it all makes sense now. And I trust myself to have the ability to use my intuition, balanced with judgement — drawing on wisdom gained from one too many good, bad, or ugly experiences. Adversity is, after all, the best teacher…