Learning How to Hustle
A few weeks ago I spoke at my alma mater, Whitman College, on a panel entitled “From Student to Startup.” After a series of questions, one student finally asked, “What is the most important skill you need to successfully start a company?” The three alumni looked at each other and finally we all said something that boiled down to “learn how to hustle.”
Both a verb and a noun, “hustle” implies that you’re constantly moving or pushing towards a goal, be it money, a job or a personal target. Though often reserved for American gangsta rappers and British TV shows, I think “hustle” is the proper term to describe the steps taken by entrepreneurs to get their ideas out into the world.
Henry Ford didn’t stop when his first automobile company dissolved in failure. Oprah Winfrey kept dreaming big even though she grew up so poor that she had to wear potato sacks to school. Muhammad Yunus persisted in his idea of micro-loans to the poor despite everyone telling him that the poor could never be trusted. Our world’s greatest entrepreneurs understand how to hustle.
After the panel discussion was over, that same student came up to me and asked, “How do I learn how to hustle?” The challenge, of course, is that this type of determination and perseverance isn’t taught in school. Here’s what I said:
1. Create a Compelling Vision
Steve Jobs famously used his charisma and persistence to persuade everyone around him that his vision for Apple was going to happen. To be clear, not everyone needs such an overpowering “reality distortion field.” But, having a vision, believing in that vision and getting others to believe in it is key to building a successful company. In his famous TED talk, Simon Sinek explains how great leaders start with their vision and values (their “why”) instead of starting with how they do it (their “what” or product). For Kuli Kuli, this means communicating our values that everyone in the world should have access to healthy and nutritious sources of food (“the why”) before telling people that we sell moringa nutrition bars (“the what”).
If you’re starting a company just to make money, the chances are high that your company will fail because most companies don’t turn a profit in their early years. On the other hand, if you are driven by a vision so big and so compelling that you’re willing to spend 80 hours a week for the next 10 years slaving away to make it happen, you might just have the blueprint for a successful company. If you can convince five people to join you, you might be on your way to creating a Fortune 500 company.
2. Don’t be Afraid to Fail
As Winston Churchill once said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with enthusiasm.” Facebook’s early motto of “fail fast, fail often” reflects an openness to failure within Silicon Valley to the point where failures are referred to as “pivots.” The often-quoted Lean Startup book advocates putting a half-done product out there (a “minimum viable product”) and learning from consumer feedback on it (i.e., “your failures”).
Fear of failure keeps most people from pursuing their dream. As I know from experience, quitting a stable job and devoting yourself 100% to making your vision a reality is a very hard leap to take. One thing that helped me was a friend who made me list out everything I had to lose. After writing them all out in paper, it became clear that I could bounce back from going broke and going out of business but I’d never get over my regret if I let this opportunity pass me by.
3. Keep trying
A picture on my computer desktop reads “the only real failure in life is the failure to try.” I had coffee with a successful food entrepreneur a few days ago and asked him for advice on entering the food world. He gave me tips on pricing and logistics before looking me in the eye and saying, “The most important thing is to keep trying. Work harder than everyone else and don’t give up.”
As the founders of IDEO, Tom and David Kelley put it in their recent book Creative Confidence, “If you want to make something great, you need to start making.” Too often we get stuck at the planning phase, striving for perfection when what we really need to do is to keep trying, keep failing and eventually get better.
Most of us don’t grow up learning how to hustle. Instead, we find ourselves driven by a passion so strong that we will do whatever it takes to get our idea off the ground. By learning from other successful entrepreneurs and taking comfort in the fact that most of them fail many times before they succeed, I hope that more would-be entrepreneurs will gain the confidence to follow their dreams.
This article was posted on Forbes, 12/10/13