The Five Questions Entrepreneurs Should Ask Themselves
Onstage in San Francisco, NPR’s Guy Raz asked Lyft co-founder John Zimmer the question the audience really wanted to know: how did Lyft survive an assault by Uber, the massively capitalized ridesharing startup determined to push Lyft out of business? Lyft had $100 million in the bank compared to Uber’s $3 billion. In addition, Uber used brutal tactics to undermine Lyft. “We knew we were underdogs from day one,” said Zimmer. “Five years ago everyone said we were dead. But values do matter; treating people well does matter; having a mission that you truly care about wins in the end.”
Zimmer continued, “When our competitor experienced big difficulties we told our people not to gloat and we meant it. Their problems didn’t affect our ability to improve people’s lives by delivering the best transportation by serving customers & drivers. We stuck to our mission.” After being pretty much ruled out, Lyft gained 8% market share in 2017, while Uber’s declined 3%.
I must admit that after listening to Zimmer I deleted Uber from my phone, something I probably should have done a long time ago.
Values and mission cut through the entire day at NPR’s inaugural How I Built This Summit, where Raz hosted a business conference that felt more like a revival meeting. Fans of the popular podcast that inspired the Summit gathered to learn from big entrepreneurs and small entrepreneurs (like me!), and at 42% men and 58% women, 50% of whom were women of color, the speaker lineup for the event earned How I Built This Summit the GenderAvenger Gold Stamp of Approval. The diversity in programming and focus on mission made the day less bro-ey and more valuable than your standard tech conference.
Larissa Shapiro of Mozilla shared her journey in trying to make the open source browser more equitable. Open source software development “is the whitest, malest sliver of the Internet,” she said, which is ironic given its mission. “We can’t make the Internet open, accessible, and free for all if we only look like a small sliver.” Intentionality of mission, she noted, has to be baked into the code.
“Amplifying our values into our products will make us better,” she said.
I’ve written often about what I call “entrepreneurship porn,” the glossy and fantastical narrative of most startup journeys relayed by media and conferences. Not only are these stories airbrushed for bumps, but they are also usually told by white men. They don’t actually help most early stage entrepreneurs learn and grow.
At How I Built This Summit, Carol’s Daughter founder Lisa Price warned us to trust our guts, even when our companies grow and outside experts come in to advise. Price calls her business a “her” and likens the brand she built from scratch to one of her children. And though Price’s story has a happy ending (she sold Carol’s Daughter to L’Oreal), the road has been bumpy, and her personal narrative was often at odds with the story her many fans and loyal customers wanted for her. Even as her business rocketed, Price cautioned, “I began to lose my voice in my own brand and I had to get it back.” She did this by trusting her gut and asserting her power while still keeping her ears open to expert advice. Unlike the stereotype of many single-minded empire builders, Price illustrated the flexibility and constant learning it takes to grow as a business owner and as a leader.
Sadie Lincoln, founder of Barre3 spoke of “the darkest time” of her business life, when she learned that employees at the fitness company she worked so hard to grow into over 100 global locations didn’t like her; even worse, they mistrusted her as a leader. They didn’t want to work for her.
Lincoln looked into the audience and admitted she was initially angry at her team. She was defensive and certain they were wrong, but then she looked deeper. She accepted responsibility, and she listened. What was very dark became a transformative experience.
Living through the spoken experiences of these incredibly successful entrepreneurs, I guarantee attendees left thinking less about unicorns and billion dollar valuations than they did asking themselves the hard questions like:
What are the values of my company?
What is my mission as an entrepreneur?
Are the products I develop equitable?
Am I listening?
What kind of a leader am I?
I know I am asking these questions, and I’m grateful for it.
Morra Aarons-Mele is author of Hiding in the Bathroom: A Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home) and founder of social impact agency Women Online and The Mission List.