Finding my purpose again when I found a startup problem worth solving
My talk for TEDx Glasgow Caledonian University, October 12 2019. (Listen to the audio, official video will follow)
Two years ago I was in freefall, part way through the biggest nose dive of my life. I’d gone from founding Europe’s Top Tech Startup, winning Innovator of the Year and being named by Forbes as one of their top female CEOs to watch, to an unemployed wreck. Painfully removed from my own company, and losing my sense of purpose along with it.
18 months ago I gave a TedX talk about the shock of that “involuntary pause”.
I expressed the grief I felt for that lost business, and lost successful version of myself - and shared my slow process of rebuilding. But even as I gave that talk, and emphasized how there is a way through that lets you build a new, more honest self from the experience - I still couldn’t imagine what my future might look like, which was really scary.
Today I’m back. CEO of my 5th startup - Vistalworks - which keeps consumers safe from harmful products as they shop online. In just 6 months we’ve hired 10 people, created ground-breaking technology, and launched in the UK and Estonia.
So how did I get from there to here? From freefall to purposeful focus?
Certainly industrial grade resilience has helped. There have been times I have literally cried “How many more lessons do I have to learn already? How much more resilience do I have to develop - can’t I just put what I already have into practice and have an easy life for a while?” Well, no…
I’ve had support and found perspective. People love you, work doesn’t. When you’ve learned that hard lesson, you have to then translate that into building a company with the values of human beings - not spreadsheets - that aligns to what you want to give back to the world, not take from it. And hard for a workaholic, you need to deliver on that without neglecting those people who - despite everything - were still there for you when it went wrong.
Now, I am an entrepreneur by compulsion - it is pretty much all I know how to do. Stick me on a desert island and I’d be founding a startup in a week. But I’m also an entrepreneur by financial necessity. I never had anyone to show me the way into a career, so building my own opportunities through business is the most powerful way to economic independence that I know. I get up, I fight on, because it does feel like I am fighting for economic survival - it always has.
But there is more to life than survival (I hope). The point - I believe - is not just to leave the world a little better than you found it (itself quite a stretch goal in these times). But also be a catalyst to help others find their path.
I’m back with Vistalworks, doing the doing of entrepreneurship, because I have found my next problem worth solving. I have found the people I want to solve it with. And I know how we will recognise when we are making a sufficiently meaningful difference.
So is there some process I am following - and can you learn that too? Hell yes - there is no point building a door if you’re the only one to walk through it. Sharing my process, in the hope I help a few of you find your path, is why I am here today.
I may have started 5 companies - but there must be at least 500 that I haven’t started. Because I have so many ideas, a filtering process is essential. Life is too short to work on a pointless company. And as an entrepreneur, if no one else can see your vision, then I’m afraid it is simply a delusion.
To get from idea to startup, I ask myself these 6 questions:
One. Is this really a problem worth solving? If there is no nagging, unsolved pain then personally I’m not interested. I’m attracted to sentences that start “I hate it when, wouldn’t it be better if, it really annoys me that” - all indicators of unsolved pain and therefore opportunity.
Number two. Who else cares? We’re naturally attracted to problems that interest us personally, and while it is fine for an idea to be niche, if the only market is you and a few of your friends, you need to move on fast. The best problems have several distinct but large groups of people that care.
Three. Does anyone care enough to commit cash even if you can only make the problem 20% less bad? What would better look like to them? What is the least amount of work you’d need to do to make them happier? Are there enough of them able to pay to make part-solving the problem worthwhile?
Four. Do you and people you can readily access have the skills or sector knowledge to think about how you’d solve the problem? From perfect trousers to drone insurance, this is where I rule out a lot of my ideas as I lack the basic knowledge to even know where to start. Just because it is a good problem, doesn’t necessarily make me equipped to solve it. But it is amazing the skillset you can assemble really early on, if have a rough sense of what you are trying to achieve.
Five. What would be better about the world if you could create even the tiniest solution? How would that look and feel? Who would be better off and how would they benefit? Many startups really struggle to define their value proposition, this question puts it up front at the heart of the mission from day one.
Finally, number 6. Do you care enough about the problem and the people associated with it to spend the next five years focused on it? Will it energise you and drive you on through tough times, or will it become an emotional drain. Not every idea is the right one for you at this moment in time, even if it ticks all the other boxes. So give yourself a little time to learn to love it, and if the spark just isn’t there, move on.
As an entrepreneur, but more importantly as a human being, I truly believe that diversity and equality of ideas matters.
If we disregard or fail to understand the importance of one group’s problem just because we don’t share it, then investment, support and opportunity does not flow fairly and the world does not get better. We get more electric scooters and fancy yoga pants, instead of products that change, even save lives.
The underlying power of these 6 steps is not only do they help focus on a problem worth solving, all this validation can be done quickly and cheaply on paper, without raising money or spending any cash at all.
There are many myths around startups, but perhaps the biggest is that raising investment comes at the beginning of the process - you have an idea, you raise money, then you start. No…. The beginning of the process - what I’m talking about here - is about learning, validating and adapting as cheaply as possible.
Take tiny low risk steps that reveal what does and doesn’t generate customer interest so you can get past your adoring audience of one as quickly as possible.
What you do doesn’t have to be perfect - in fact perfect is the enemy of good. A sketch that is good enough to teach you in just 3 days that no one else on the planet cares, is way more valuable than an expensive prototype that takes you a year to learn the same lesson.
Banish trying to be perfect. It is thoroughly inefficient. You’ll never be perfect enough anyway, by external or internal standards, and the process of trying will not be a happy one.
Which brings me to my final, more insidious myth. This one really should come with a health warning.... It is the myth of “never give up”. There’s a time and a place for it, I’m sure, but as general advice “never give up” is pretty terrible in my view. Most of my business ideas are absolute rubbish - I did the world and myself a favour by giving up on them fast.
More importantly, 5 years into a startup that I knew wasn’t working, that day after day was draining the joy and confidence from my life, I felt completed trapped by the fear that I would be judged a pathetic failure, because I couldn’t live up to the “never give up” standard.
The actual experience of failing, of losing something I had worked so hard for, was nowhere near as toxic to my mental and physical health as the fear that it might happen.
Knowing when to give up, when to walk away is the most powerful lesson you can learn.
Because purpose, failure and perfect all connect. When you’re seeking perfect rather than purpose, the worst thing that can happen is failure. And yet failure is inevitable, so fear is always present.
But the long term effects of fear are worse than those of failure. Once you have failed, you are so much more powerful. You move past fear and can start connecting to your purpose and just doing the best you can - taking enough small steps to make a meaningful difference.
Two years ago I was in freefall - afraid I’d been all I was ever going to be. Purposeless, and unable to imagine summoning up the energy or focus necessary to do this all again.
But I mapped out my problem finding process and I followed it until eventually I found one that worked for me. It wasn’t “the one” initially, it was just one of many, but ultimately the idea behind Vistalworks earned the right to become my single point of focus.
I found my purpose again when I found a meaningful business problem worth solving.
But because I learned those lessons of resilience and perspective - because I now know people love and support you, work doesn’t - that business purpose is completely aligned to what I want to give back to the world as an individual.
And if we reflect on those 6 steps again, why does this just have to be about startups? It feels to me that this is a path - one of many possible routes - to unfolding good together.
Find a problem worth solving that other people also care enough about to commit to.
Paint a clear picture of what better looks and feels like
With the pooled skills you have access to, think about how you’ll start to approach tackling the problem and how you will recognise better when you achieve it.
If the love and enthusiasm is there, that will generate the energy required to carry you and others into the execution phase, where a whole new set of challenges apply.
The execution of any plan - business or personal - is still very hard, but it is impossible if you don’t know where you’re going or why.
You can use these 6 steps to find your own purpose. You can do this with your peers and community. And once you find your problem worth solving and define how you will recognise when you are making a small, but meaningful difference, you really can leave the world a little better than you found it.
I’m Vicky Brock. I’m back!
Thank you very much.
Listen to the audio, the official video will be uploaded when available