By Alexis Schroeder
Not the thing you thought you wanted to build.
It occurred to me recently that starting a company is a crash course in living in the present moment. To be successful, founders must work toward achieving a long-term vision and short-term set of goals while still remaining open to new ways of thinking and working. While this may sound like a given, for founders or anyone else, it absolutely isn’t. It’s only human of us to want to hold onto things: ideas, people, old ways of living and working. This can work just fine for a while, but quite often it leads to a giant brick wall, which then ends up feeling like a killer headache.
If we want to grow and change as individuals and leaders and if we want our companies and organizations to do the same, we have to practice letting go of the old and trusting the new. This is no easy task.
I call myself a social entrepreneur. Have I done anything particularly innovative and entrepreneurial? Yes and no. A year and a half ago I began having conversations with an acquaintance about an idea for a media company. We decided we wanted to leverage personal narratives for social change. A vague, lofty idea to begin with and a not-so-clear way of communicating it.
What kind of social change were we talking about? Why were personal narratives the answer? While we may not have been able to say it simply at the time, all we really wanted to do was tell stories that had the power to change people’s thinking about poverty. We wanted to talk to people making a difference in their communities who were also doing something different – people who were tackling poverty in new or particularly effective ways and were treating problems at their root cause rather than providing emergency fixes. And we wanted to make these stories available both to people who naturally seek them out and to the masses. To say, “Here, look at this solution,” and, “There are people all over doing great things who we can learn from.”
Within a few months we had invited three other people to join us and had what we thought was a clear vision for the organization. We would be a resource center informing citizens of what services were offered in their community while also connecting organizations to one another. And in addition we’d produce media about projects and organizations we thought deserved better coverage by the press. I felt a little silly telling other people what were trying to do and how we thought we could add value. For the first five or six months of our existence, beyond finding advisers, networking, and doing a ton of reading, we spent most of our time talking through our ideas and aspirations for the organization intensely and at length. I wish I could say this wasn’t necessary for our development, but it was. There was a lot to talk about, for example, how to turn good ideas into action, how to work together as a team, and how to not reinvent the wheel.
Within another few months, our model had changed dramatically. We no longer wanted to be a resource center; we simply wanted to produce media, tell stories that mattered, and let the network of people and organizations grow from there. In addition to doing interviews, we wanted to host community dialogues that would bring leaders together to share ideas, problems, and lessons learned. To make things more interesting, we went from five members to three. It turns out the best of friends can’t always work together and life has a way of interrupting things. These are things we should have known, but like the young people that we are, needed to find out for ourselves.
Long story short, nearly everything had changed except for the telling stories idea.
Where are we today? There are just two of us now (apart from the filmmakers, photographers, writers, and designers we work with) and not even the original two members either. And just yesterday we decided we need to reconsider whether or not we really want to be a nonprofit. (We’d been mulling this question over for a few months anyway, but this article is what really got us thinking.) Apart from having very little money, we’re up and running. We’ve hosted a few events, collected more interviews and revamped our first interviews, and are in the process of building a website to make those interviews available to the world. We’ve made great connections in the community, are close to getting startup funding, and perhaps most exciting, are doing work people tell us they appreciate.
When people ask me how the New Prosperity Initiative (NPi) came to be, I try to answer them honestly. “I had a really powerful conversation with someone about a year and a half ago, and we continued talking from there. We invited a few people to join us. I remember we all gathered around a table at Algiers in Harvard Square and asked ourselves, ‘What do people need in order to be able to thrive?’ It’s interesting… I don’t think it would have happened if we didn’t let it change.”
Indeed, the only thing that has stayed constant about NPi is our original idea of telling stories that inform and inspire. As difficult as it was to go through two or three major transformations, I understand this was necessary for us to be where we are now. It’s probably the only reason we’re still around.
Starting a company is rewarding certainly, but it’s also hard, hard work. Quite a few people will tell you you’re crazy, far too inexperienced to do something like this, and there will be days you believe the same. And of course it’s disappointing each and every time you realize one of your ideas isn’t going to work. It feels awful. But if you stick with it, if you listen to what’s changing about your organization and the needs of your community, if you hold onto your original vision and core principles while letting the model change in the ways it needs to… chances are you’ll be successful. To listen, you must be there in the present moment. Stay there and feel the discomfort of change and trust you’ll arrive someplace new that makes sense eventually. The tricky part is sticking with it when things don’t make a shred of sense yet.
The only advice I can give to entrepreneurs is this: build the thing that’s changing. Build some combination of the thing you originally wanted to build and the thing that wants to built all on its own (and is likely going to be built one way or another whether you’re on board or not). It’s a lot like improv, but improv over the course of months or years (read more on improv from Jack Cheng at Behance Magazine here). It’s as uncomfortable as it is exciting, as much about intuition and patience as it is about having entrepreneurial skills, and from what I’ve learned, it’s the only way to go.